Above: Gail Johnson confers with a teen at the Warren Boys & Girls Club. SPECIAL 

When Warren Boys & Girls Club closed for the coronavirus quarantine, its executive director Gail Johnson got busy calling members’ families about their needs and securing money for gift cards to help them buy groceries.

“At some point I realized I’m just talking to parents and telling them to tell the kids ‘hi,’” she said.

That wasn’t enough for Johnson, who’s now in her 42nd year with Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, an after-school program whose mission is to “positively impact the lives of children and teens, especially those who need us most.”

“These kids didn’t even have time to say goodbye to their teachers,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden, everybody was gone.”

She wanted the kids to know how much they matter and how much they were missed.

So, she took pen to paper and, over a period of about two weeks in April, handwrote 267 personalized letters — one for every child on the roster — and then mailed them in personally addressed envelopes.

Letters are a testament

Johnson’s letter-writing project was “a testament to who she is,” said her supervisor, Nikki McClain, regional operations director for Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta.

“She loves what she does,” McClain said of Johnson, who started with the nonprofit while still a sociology major at Spelman College. “She’s impacted so many people in this city. She’s definitely treasured.”

Gail Johnson

Instead of composing the letters at her home, Johnson wrote them inside the then-shuttered Warren club in Grant Park, where she’s worked since 1991. She hoped to recreate the mental space she’s in with each child when she greets them upon their arrival.

“I wanted the letter to be about the questions I ask them each day,” said Johnson. “The gift of writing is part of your soul you’re giving to someone else. It has to be intentional and has to be heartfelt.”

She recalls reminding a boy named James to stop aggravating his sister and told him his beloved LEGOs would be ready for him when he returns.

“The hardest letters to write were the ones to my kids who were seniors this year,” she said. One of them had been at Warren from the age of 6.

She chose to write instead of type because “that’s me going the extra mile, to give a part of me.” She used a variety of colors of ink, selecting them “depending on the personality of the child.”

Aside from getting her supervisor’s approval for postage, Johnson told almost no one about her project until it was done. Letter writing is said to be a lost art, especially among youth, and she didn’t want to be discouraged by potential naysayers.

Love is returned to sender

The response she got to her labor of love blew her away. Parents told her how excited their kids were to get, in some cases, their very first letter. Others told her about their kids being upset that a sibling’s letter came but theirs hadn’t arrived yet.

Some kids spoke for themselves and wrote Johnson back. “It gave me hope that, despite the pandemic, things are going to get better,” she said.

Grant Park resident Canveta Burke’s son and granddaughters were among those who replied to Johnson, attaching candy to their letters.

“The Boys & Girls Club is just their home away from home. Miss Gail has been a key part of their lives,” Burke said. “They cried when they got their first letter from Miss Gail. If only I could have recorded the look on their faces. Each child had their own letter. It was specifically for them, for the person she knew they were.”

In late August, Warren Boys & Girls Club began a partial reopening.

Johnson is there by 7 a.m. each weekday, helping a limited number of students who begin arriving a half hour later with the challenges of their virtual school day.

“With the kids returning, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “It’s like we were holding our breath for five months. This is giving us an opportunity to exhale and move forward.”

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.