House Built for a Hero

June 12, 2007

Reported by: Britney Glaser

In January of 2004, KPLC first introduced you to James, Heather and 3-year-old Gracie Johnson. Young Gracie had just been diagnosed with leukemia, and her family was beginning a tough battle of ups and downs.

A lot has happened since that first story, and this update will hopefully inspire you to live by the Johnson motto of "Looking for the best in the bad and pushing forward."

In May of 2004, James Johnson was not only a 4th grade teacher at Nelson Elementary, but he was also one of the hundreds of members of the Louisiana National Guard's 256th Brigade being called to active duty in the Middle East.  In a 2004 interview with James, he told KPLC, "I'm glad that I'm gonna be able to serve our country."

James went from the classroom to the war zone, and it was all at the same time that then three-year-old Gracie began her fight with leukemia.  "While they were fighting the leukemia here," says James, "I fought my own battle overseas."

It was in January of 2005 in Baghdad that the military vehicle James was riding in was hit by an explosive device - killing two and severely injuring James. With a purple heart in hand, James spent the next year recovering at an army hospital.  In an interview upon his return in 2005, James said, "I've kind of got some broken bones, but the thing that hurts the most is heartache for the friends that I lost."

As if those obstacles weren't enough, Hurricane Rita severely damaged the Johnsons' home, forcing them to move around while Gracie continues traveling to Houston for cancer treatments.  Gracie, who is now seven, and fighting her second battle with leukemia says, "It's hard because, it's like at first we pack and then we get home for a couple of days...and then we have to pack again and unpack, and pack and unpack."

But, things are now looking up for the Johnsons.  Gordon Whitlock is the Director of the Western Center for Technical Studies in Limmerick, Pennsylvania.  Whitlock and his students had a special project in mind that brought them right here to Southwest Louisiana.

"We were looking for somebody who was a veteran and lost their house to the hurricane," says Whitlock, "and so through different contacts we made with the Louisiana government and Louisiana National Guard, James' name came up and basically that's been our mission is to get the house down here for him and his family."

This group of 40 Vo-Tech high school students from Pennsylvania has spent the past year building the Johnsons' new home.  Nicole Greene is a senior at Western Center, and she says she will never forget taking part in this project.  "It's been a long process," says Greene, "It takes a lot of people a lot of time and a lot of energy."

It is coming together, though, within the next two weeks, this family of three will be moved in to their first "owned" home.  Erin Robicheaux with the Louisiana National Guard says, "When this came along, it just really seemed to be the answer to their prayers."

Heather Johnson is ecstatic about the new home.  "Financially, this is a blessing that can never truly be repaid and 'thank you' does not express the appreciation for what these kids and what this project means for us," says Heather.

To the Pennsylvania students, this is a school project deserving much more than an "A" and for the Johnsons, it's at least one source of stability.  Gracie loves her new room: "I have two really big windows and two side tables and a walk-in closet. I think this is my favoritest room that I've ever had," she told KPLC while sitting in the room she can't wait to call her own.

*Another remarkable part of the Johnsons' story is that James was given the option of staying in the states with his family because of Gracie's cancer treatments - rather than deploying - but he said it was his "honor and duty to deploy" with his unit.