Karen Johnston's professional career has been dedicated to helping children.
From starting out as a teacher in Little Falls to coming to work at PORT Group Homes in Brainerd almost 12 years ago, Johnston said her career goal has always been to work with kids, especially children with special needs.
"They're great, they really are," Johnston said. "Even the kids we get at PORT, people think, Oh, they're bad kids.' They're not. They're not, they just need help to make better choices, to find better solutions for things that they need to work through."
Johnston, originally from the Twin Cities, earned degrees in education and human behavior. She lived in Little Falls for 16 years, working in the school district as a teacher and an assistant principal before taking a job with the Initiative Foundation.
Twelve years ago Johnston found a job at PORT Group Homes that rolled all of her experience in working with children into one position. A year and a half ago, she took over as executive director at PORT Group Homes.
PORT Group Homes provide residential services to children at risk. Each of the group homes in Brainerd - two for boys and two for girls - is a structured, nurturing environment. The goal, Johnston said, is to teach children to make healthy choices by providing consistency and teaching responsibility.
Karen Johnston sat at her desk at PORT Group Homes in Brainerd.
Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
But since she has taken over, PORT has had to reinvent itself.
As a contract agency through Crow Wing County, PORT Group Homes, like other departments and agencies, has been a victim of budget cutbacks. The company went from 100 employees to 48, 62 residents to 52 and had to sell two buildings.
"We're half the company we were three years ago," she said. "We're not the same as we were even a year ago. It's been a hectic 18 months."
But what might have appeared to be the beginning of the end for PORT Group Homes could eventually save the company. With budget cuts came a new philosophy. Instead of institutionalized programs for kids, each is tailored to the individual child. Instead of telling children how long they would have to stay and what type of counseling they would receive, it's now up to the children and parents. Less became more.
"I think we're better serving the kids this way," Johnston said. "We're trying to be a little kinder and gentler."
Book you're currently reading: John Sandford's "Eyes of Prey." "I'm really a mystery aficionado."
Hobbies: Golfing, fishing and her dogs. "I take them to obedience school and they take me walking."
Best-kept secret: Her favorite fishing spot, and she's not about to divulge that secret for Dispatch readers.
Perfect meal: Summer barbecue with friends. "It doesn't matter what we're barbecuing ... it's just usually a good time."
Biggest fear: "That as a society we don't take care of our environment in the future. We have to take care of what we've been given."
Words to live by: "This ties back to PORT. We all need to try to make a difference. It's easy to sit back and let the world pass by, but it's important to make a difference, in the lives of kids or the environment. I think we have that obligation."
Proudest moment: Leading an expedition of five girls in the Northwest Territories, in which they were the first women to paddle into Baker's Lake, an Inuit settlement north of Churchill, Manitoba.
If you have a suggestion for an Everyday People feature, contact Kathi Nagorski at email@example.com or 855-5859.
Johnston said funding problems for such programs at PORT Group Homes aren't just a local issue but are statewide and nationwide as budget cutbacks have had a trickle-down effect on programs. She said the need for programs such as PORT in Brainerd remains as high as ever, especially after the Baxter Youth Shelter closed and more placement is needed for children of meth offenders and other chemically dependent parents.
Her staff includes psychologists, caseworkers and support staff, all of whom have had to work hard to help PORT make it through its recent changes. She gives most of the credit for the success of PORT and its reconfiguration to her staff, and she is certain the program will flourish in the future because of them.
"There's sunshine behind the clouds, you could say," she said. "It's actually not a bad thing, though it has been scary at times. These changes have been really good for us."
Johnston has no future plans outside of working for PORT Group Homes, she said, because there's so much that has yet to be done. Besides, working for PORT makes her happy, she said.
"It keeps me busy and there's a huge variety to this job," she said. "You never know what the next day will bring."
MATT ERICKSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.
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