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Army veteran volunteers to help others in Gainesville
Varner connects those in need with community resources
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Johnny Varner volunteers in the Black and Cooley drives neighborhood where he grew up. He serves on the neighborhood’s community council and helps many of the elderly residents in the area. - photo by Tom Reed

The giving spirit

This holiday season, The Times each day spotlights a person or couple who give of themselves to help others in the community. Today, meet Johnny Varner who volunteers in the Black and Cooley drives community where he grew up along with serving with the American Legion.

Home Development Resources Inc.

The agency offers low- and moderate-income residents an opportunity to improve their quality of life and facilitate neighborhood revitalization. It has offered debt management education, down payment assistance and revitalization services. For more information, click here or call 770-297-1800.

What keeps community activist Johnny Varner awake some nights is his habit of brainstorming pet projects.

Those projects usually involve helping the elderly in the Gainesville community where he grew up and aiding veterans in need after they've returned home from war.

Varner's strategy for providing relief for them usually involves figuring the needs of those who are struggling, and then connecting them with an organization that can help.

Think of him as the middle man bridging the supply of assistance with the demand.

"Johnny is a great resource for anybody in the community," said Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell, who has worked with Varner in some of his projects.

The Rev. Victor Lamar Johnson, a community advocate and activist, said Varner is a man of action.

"He's always the one that will get things rolling," Johnson said.

Varner, in collaboration with other groups, has helped homeless veterans find shelter and facilitated better conditions for low-income seniors in the Black and Cooley drives community.

Varner, 48, makes his living helping others find jobs and improve their skills at Goodwill, where he works as a career manager.

However, full-time service work hasn't been enough for Varner, who spent most of his adult life in military service. Much of his free time is also dedicated to volunteering.

It's all the same to him.

"It's anybody I can help," he said, "whether I'm at work or just trying to do projects in the community."

Varner retired from the Army in 2006 after 20 years in the military, which included work as a radar technician during the launch of the war in Iraq. He returned to Gainesville to find his mother's community at Black and Cooley drives still in poor economic shape compared to other communities in the area.

Varner made it his mission to help.

Through grants and work from Hall County, the community has made positive strides in recent years, Bell said. Varner aided Bell in his 2008 campaign to become commissioner.

Varner, the commissioner said, has been part of that effort - particularly in making sure that improvement doesn't stop.

Vaner's dedication to the community prompted Bell to appoint him to the Hall County Planning Commission, where Varner tries to affect policy from the inside. Planning commissioners are given a small stipend for their time at meetings.

But it doesn't stop there for Varner.

"I don't know what we'd do without Johnny," said Fredia Wilson, whose mother, Christine Hudson, lives on Cooley Drive.

Wilson said Varner regularly visits her mother, who is 91, and other older residents who have lived in the neighborhood since Varner was young.

Over the years, Varner has notified residents like Hudson of money available through the Ninth District Opportunity Inc. to help her pay winter heating bills and weatherize her home. Hudson also got her home remodeled through Home Development Resources Inc., another nonprofit partnered with Varner.

In coordination with the Black and Cooley Drive Community Council, Varner held a meeting for residents to inform them about weatherization programs through Ninth District Opportunity in November. He also helped them fill out the paperwork to ensure they would be eligible.

Johnson, director of Gainesville-based Veterans and Community Outreach Foundation, credits Varner with "changing the face" of their local Legion Post 328 by giving the organization more leadership in its service-driven focus.

Charles Hendrix, who served as vice chairman with Post 328, said Varner's leadership in spearheading service projects put the American Legion back on the map locally.

During Varner's stint as post commander, he led many efforts for veterans struggling financially.

In September there was Stand Down for Veterans, a two-day event in South Hall aimed at providing veterans with needed services such as health screenings, counseling and access to food and clothing.

Like his work in the Black and Cooley drives community, Varner partnered with other organizations to bring existing services to veterans who needed help.

With more veterans beginning to return home from Iraq, Johnson expects the need for assistance will only increase.

Varner said the ultimate goal is to address long-term needs, as well as the immediate.

"When we help disenfranchised people," he said, "we have to make sure it's a sustained process."

Varner said he's always looking for new ways to help and learn about new programs that can fit his community's needs.

Varner thanks his wife, Lisa, for her support in allowing him to spend so much time working on his passions.

"It really makes me feel good," he said. "It can be addicting."

Hendrix, who grew up in the Black and Cooley drives community, said Varner's dedication to service springs from his upbringing, but is enhanced by his experience in the military.

"He is a selfless, serving person," Hendrix said. "I think he takes that into everything he does."

 

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