Inky Johnson remembers the day 10 years ago that changed his life forever.
Johnson was a University of Tennessee college football standout whose NFL hopes ended with a life-changing injury his senior year. He used the experience to become a motivational speaker, challenging others to overcome the obstacles in their lives.
Johnson was the keynote speaker Tuesday evening at the 14th annual Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County Futures for Kids Gala.
Johnson himself is a Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta alumnus. He credited the clubs and his first childhood football coach with setting his life on a path toward success.
“It changed the trajectory of my life,” he said. “I grew up in an environment where there was drugs, gangs, violence. You name it, we had it. That Boys & Girls Club was my haven. It was my safe place. It was the place where I honed a lot of my skills, and it helped me become the man I am today.”
He shared the story of his injury, which resulted from a routine tackle he’d made countless times as a Volunteers safety. But it resulted in paralysis of his right arm and hand, ending his career and very nearly his life.
Johnson said when he woke up in the hospital after the surgery that saved his life, he saw his childhood football coach crying on his mother’s shoulder. He knew he couldn’t give up, because someone else had invested in him.
His injury occurred in September 2006. The following spring, he began his decadelong career as a motivational speaker.
Tuesday’s gala also included a celebration of Hall County’s club alumni and members. Jasmine Jenkins, clubs alumna and recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, shared her experience at the club in her teen years.
She described the horrors of her childhood, experiencing physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
“I stand before you today as a testimony,” she said. “The guys that I met at the Boys & Girls Clubs saved my life every single day that I saw them.”
The Helping Hands Award, given annually to an individual or group that has demonstrated commitment to the Boys & Girls Clubs, was presented to Gainesville City Schools.
The school system has been a partner of the clubs for decades, but in recent years it has taken its partnership a step further by providing after-school club programming on school sites, along with programs during the school day and in the summer.
Gainesville Superintendent Wanda Creel said the district has been using data to look at how best to serve and cater to each child, while tangibly supplying teachers for the after-school program, offering children greater consistency throughout their day.
Steve Mickens, CEO for the clubs, thanked the school system for helping take care of “our children.”
“For me, this says that we truly are working together,” Creel said of the award. “I’ve said the mantra, ‘Schools cannot do this alone.’ So the fact that Boys & Girls Clubs and the school system are partnering, truly partnering, to help children says they’re our children no matter what.”
Funds raised at the gala support club programs focused on academic success, healthy lifestyles and good character and citizenship.
“This is an opportunity to tell our story with our kids,” Mickens said. “It’s a celebration. We always want to highlight the fantastic things our kids do. ... Really, this event is to thank our donors and say, ‘Hey, this is the return on your investment and we want you to see it firsthand.’”