Deambra Johnson sits serenely at the glass-top table in the kitchen of her apartment in Bellevue, reflecting on the night three years ago when she took her young twins in hand and climbed aboard a Greyhound bus in Philadelphia with tickets to Seattle.
She had never been to Washington. Had no connections here. No job lined up. Just a dream, $500 from her church’s leaders and a determination to disentangle herself from the violence, poverty and abuse that marred so much of her young life.
Johnson says she cried all the way across Pennsylvania, and again, three nights later, when the bus traversed the Interstate 90 floating bridge to Seattle.
“I was so excited and bursting at the seams with joy,” she says.
Within weeks, she had two jobs. Within two months, she was living with all four of her children in a two-bedroom apartment that had her name on the lease. Two months after that, she was back in college, juggling parenting with work and school.
On Friday, Johnson marked another milestone: She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Capella University, an online institution. In August, she’ll start working toward her master’s degree in education, moving a step closer to her goal of becoming a special-education teacher.
“I never thought I would be a success,” says Johnson, 30, who recently won a scholarship toward her graduate studies from the Women’s University Club of Seattle. When she accepted the scholarship at the group’s awards dinner, she seemed surprised at the rousing applause that accompanied her life story.
“For her age, she’s been through a lot,” says her friend and former classmate, Michael Hayes, 53. “She’s a strong, important role model for a whole lot of other women with kids. If she can do it, you say, then maybe I can, too.”
Johnson’s journey from teen mother to graduate student was marked by detours, but never dead ends, not even when she was her own worst enemy. She’ll be the first person to tell you.
Johnson was born in Flint, Michigan, the fourth of five children. Johnson says she was 8 or 9 years old when her parents split after 13 years of marriage. Her mother “lost herself,” Johnson says, and became physically and emotionally abusive. Seeking to escape, Johnson says she bounced “from home to home to home, seeking love, attention and peace of mind.”
At 15, she became pregnant with her first child. Her mom, eager for a fresh start, moved Johnson and her younger brother on a Greyhound bus to Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“It happened like a miracle,” says her mother, Earnestine Johnson, who was 50 when she made the move. “I was guided there. I didn’t know anyone. I was kind of scared, and prayed all the way.”
Colorado was peaceful and clean, the schools were far better, and there were more opportunities for work. The family stayed at a hotel for three days, until a friendly woman found them an apartment close to her church. Her mom found a cleaning job at a nearby McDonald’s and worked as a certified nurse assistant.
Johnson became pregnant with her second child in her senior year of high school, but stayed in school, walking across the stage to accept her diploma in May 2005 when she was seven months pregnant. She credits Palmer High’s social group for expectant teen mothers with keeping her engaged at what might otherwise have been a time of despair.
“It made me feel all is not lost. It lifted me up and supported me,” she says. The school also allowed her to graduate on time by offering her an opportunity to take classes during the day and at night.
After high school, Johnson worked full time at a day-care center operated by the pastor of her church, and moved into her own apartment. But then the pastor moved away, and after seven months, Johnson was back home living — and fighting — with her mother.
Working two jobs
When the pastor and his wife returned for a visit the following year, Johnson asked if she and her two boys could live with them. Soon, she and the kids were on a Greyhound bus headed for Wilmington, Delaware.
The pastoral couple later lost their home in Delaware, and Johnson moved into a homeless shelter that she credits with giving her family a stable home while she worked at Target and saved enough money to take an Amtrak train back to Colorado.
There, she worked two jobs while sorting out her future. In April 2008, she moved with her boys to Philadelphia and enrolled in college. But shortly after arriving, she fell in love, and within three months was pregnant again, this time with twins. Her optimism turned to despair when her husband began beating her, she says.
“I was 21. I had no idea what I was going to do with four kids,” she says. “I just knew I had to keep moving, even if I was crying, crawling, hurting.”
She dropped out of Strayer University, sent the older boys to live with her mom, and hid from her husband with the twins, working as a home-health aide while struggling to pay for an apartment in an impoverished neighborhood best known for a high school called one of the most dangerous schools in America.
After 2 1/2 years of hiding, Johnson realized there was only one path out: education. She enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia, with a major in psychology.
She remembers thinking: “If I learn how the mind works, I can help myself and make sure my babies are in a healthy situation.” And the field was so diverse, she figured there would be a good chance of landing a well-paying job when she graduated.
Dreams of Seattle
In college, Johnson took an English class with professor Steve Davis, a University of Washington graduate who grew up in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. He talked often about Seattle, telling the class about the beauty of the city, about the opportunities and the civic-mindedness of the place, according to Johnson and Hayes, her classmate.
Davis was “bursting with optimism,” Johnson says. So much so that she thought, “That’s for me. I need social liberation. I need freedom.”
She began researching Seattle on the college library’s computers, nestling her chin in her hand, and dreaming while perusing photos and watching YouTube videos of the Emerald City.
“I’d imagine myself standing in front of the Troll,” she says, “or crossing a bridge over water.”
She talked to the pastors at her church in Philadelphia about moving to Seattle after graduating with her associate degree. “I tore his ear up,” she said of her pastor, Tony Pearson of the First Church of Love, Faith and Deliverance.
“She was a very determined woman,” Pearson says. “She was going through a hard place in her life. She took a leap of faith to leave and sell everything in Philadelphia and go to Washington. As a woman and a mother, she wanted the best for her children.”
Pearson says Johnson never asked for anything from the church, so Pearson and his wife, Delphine, took up a collection and surprised Johnson with a gift of $500 for her journey.
“The only thing she wanted was to be sincerely loved by people,” he says. “We love her, and love is an action word.”
Johnson worked a series of jobs, and in January 2015, enrolled in Capella University to complete her bachelor’s degree. Last fall, the Bellevue School District hired her to work as a para-educator with special-education students at one of its elementary schools.
There, she finally found her path, she says. She’s also made peace with her mother.