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Dad’s spirit inspires senior to enter “World Race” mission

Within hours of receiving his diploma on Saturday, Kyle Johnson will drive to Georgia to train for a service program that will take him to 11 different countries in as many months. His inspiration? A “bucket list” his father compiled – and mostly completed – before dying on New Year’s Day.

Kyle Johnson '10

The Apex, N.C., native is raising money for a Christian mission, “The World Race,” which directs participants around the globe in a project that is one part competition, one part philanthropy. Volunteers carry little more than a backpack stuffed with clothing and personal items needed for nearly a year away from home.

Johnson and about 70 others travel in the coming months to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ireland, Malawi, Mozambique, China, Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, Romania and Turkey. They will work by partnering with existing missionaries and ministries as they spend their days in construction, in prayer and in outreach.

“I’d always considered myself a good person but wasn’t letting God control my life,” said the strategic communications major. “I realized that any news that could rock my world is only a phone call away.”

Helping the poor in the developing world was the last thing Johnson envisioned prior to his senior year of college. Life after Elon was supposed to be in public relations, maybe in Washington, D.C., where he’d held a top internship with Ogilvy Public Relations. Then, in September 2009, doctors found spots on his father’s liver.

Richard Johnson worked as a surgical nurse at Duke Raleigh Hospital. Two years ago, surgeons removed a lesion from the back of the elder Johnson’s neck, and his prognosis looked excellent. A routine scan uncovered spots on the liver, however, and Richard Johnson learned he had six months to live, at best.

His faith in God gave him an immediate peace. Taking a pass on chemotherapy and radiation, Richard Johnson put together a “bucket list,” from skydiving to inking a tattoo to taking a cruise in the Bahamas with his children, Kyle, then 21, and Shannon, who is three years older. Kyle Johnson, in fact, studied for his fall exams in the Caribbean.

But Richard Johnson also compiled more intimate gestures, such as giving each of his children a cross to wear, going to church with them as much as possible and buying lunch for his work family. He wanted to spend more time with his children, too, a wish that strained Kyle Johnson’s focus in class.

“I only wanted to be home as much as I could and had considered dropping out,” Kyle Johnson said. “I realized my school schedule was preventing my dad from doing things from his bucket list at times. But I knew dropping out would only add more stress for him.”

Life wasn’t always about faith for Kyle, a former Elon Phoenix football player who hung up his cleats after his sophomore season, choosing to spend more time preparing for his career. Johnson served as president of Elon’s chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America. He worked closely with the university’s student-run public relations group Live Oak and landed a top internship.

He also founded “A Day with the Phoenix.” The community outreach program brings underprivileged youth from Alamance County to campus to watch home sporting events for football, basketball and baseball, and to meet with athletes who serve as inspiration.

“What’s unique about Kyle is that he doesn’t really seek a lot of credit for his giving to others,” said assistant professor Barbara Miller, who taught Johnson’s senior seminar course in strategic communications. “I didn’t know he had started ‘Day with the Phoenix,’ and I had had him in class and was the adviser to PRSSA. I sat down with him to write a letter of recommendation. It was only then that he elaborated on this campus wide effort he had started.

I think he’s always had a heart for giving. This experience with his dad, though, has taken this passion to another level. He has a newfound purpose that he wants to share.

Recognizing the presence of God in his father, Kyle Johnson’s own faith deepened as he strengthened relationships with members of People’s Memorial Christian Church in Burlington. After his father’s death on New Year’s Day – just three weeks after the cruise to the Bahamas - Kyle Johnson started his search for a mission trip to spread his own renewed faith.

Nothing sparked his interest. Not until April. Not until a friend suggested he look at a program called “The World Race.” Johnson read the website and felt his calling. The application was en route within days, and by May, he was shopping for a tent and hiking backpack.

Johnson doesn’t know what will happen next. He’ll tell you he’s only following God. He’s anxious to see where the “Race” will take him. And he suspects that he’ll return to public relations, making use of a life philosophy he learned from his dad.

“It’s the idea of knowing that I won’t come back as the same person that’s exciting,” he said. “This trip is going to transform me.”

Read more about Johnson’s future endeavor and donate to his cause by visiting his blog.

Eric Townsend,
5/19/2010 8:24 AM