Donzella Johnson never imagined being homeless and hungry. She did everything “right.” Graduated high school, obtained a clerical certificate from DelTech, enrolled in the Delaware National Guard, got married and started a family.
After serving as an Active Guard and Reserve Soldier for the Delaware National Guard for 29-plus years, Donzella retired in 2009. Suffering a spinal cord injury in 2000, Donzella looked forward to finally having surgery during retirement; however, issues with her VA benefits left her in a financial bind. To help make extra money she worked the overnight shift at the Walmart SuperCenter in Middletown.
Six months after her retirement she became a homeless veteran. Donzella lost everything, including her comfortable four-bedroom home. She put what she could in storage, but after she couldn’t pay for the storage unit, the owner sold the contents of the unit - including her medals and awards from her time of service – for $975.00; the gentleman who bought it made close to $45,000 after selling the individual items.
Donzella’s story is not uncommon. In fact, according to the Hunger in America 2014 study, 30 percent of clients served by the Food Bank of Delaware’s network of Hunger-Relief Program Partners have at least one household member who has either served or is serving in the military.
Like many veterans, Donzella had difficulties finding a spot in a local shelter because she was single. Thankfully, her mother lives locally. Donzella stayed with her mother, sister, niece and great niece for some time. The house was full; she found herself sleeping in a twin bed with two adult children, on the floor or a friend’s couch.
Despite the living conditions, Donzella was determined to get back on her feet. She used her friend’s computer to look for a job, walked to the local library to apply for jobs and rode the DART bus to job interviews.
Having difficulties finding a job, Donzella turned to the Delaware National Guard’s employment services and Goodwill for help. A volunteer from Bank of America assisted with sprucing up her resume. She got a call for an interview with the Emergency Medicatl Services and Office of Preparedness located at Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Smyrna. She walked to her interview and realized that she would have two more interviews before she secured a position there. She was hired and managed to walk to and from work everyday, no matter what the weather, for almost a year before anyone knew that she did not have a car.
Donzella worked to regain her financial footing, but pay-day loans left her financials in ruins. “It was about survival,” she said. “I didn’t think about the repercussions.”
A local landlord agreed to rent a townhouse to her. “He told me that he was renting based on my character, not my credit score.”
Donzella was thankful. She recalled her first night in her new home, “I had no bed and slept on the floor, but it was the most peaceful rest.”
Asbury United Methodist Church and St. Polycarp Church in Smyrna helped Donzella get back on her feet. Ladies from the auxiliary brought towels, pots, pans and food. It wasn’t until April 2011 that she could afford her very first piece of furniture.
Making a good salary now, Donzella is still behind. She now owns a car and was finally able to have surgery for the injury she suffered more than a decade ago. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, she was able to purchase health insurance to cover the costs of her surgery. Now that she has fully recovered from surgery, Donzella describes herself as a totally different person. She can sleep at night and doesn’t suffer from headaches.
As she works to regain her financial footing with the help of a $Stand By Me financial coach, Donzella remains active as an advocate for veterans. As an advocate, she dreams of building a homeless shelter for veterans, especially female veterans, and building awareness of issues that many veterans suffer through after returning from the battlefield. She actively gives testimonials; her perfect job would be a veterans advocate. She states that it may not happen in her life time but the perception of the Guard need to be changed. Donzella is the Membership chair, Ways and Means Co-Chair, State Conference Coordinator and Former Secretary for the Delaware National Guard Enlisted Association; the Secretary for the Delaware National Guard Retired Association and Service Provider Coordinator for the Veterans Homeless Stand Down event.
Life is finally looking up for Donzella, she is five credits away from obtaining her bachelor’s degree and is determined to work on her master’s degree next!