Johnson is the founder of Open Doors Tennessee, a nonprofit that he formed when his son, Will, was first diagnosed with autism in 2005. The goal of the nonprofit is to provide social opportunities to families of children with disabilities.
“Once William received his diagnosis, I saw the lack of support and fun things for him to do,” Johnson said. “As far as outings or anything a typical kid would do, at 6, things were really hard with Will. He needed a lot more support.”
He knew of other families with children like Will and knew that they, too, didn’t have much for their kids to do.
He also remembered a friend he had in elementary school with disabilities. By the time the pair entered middle school, he rarely saw his friend. He was taken down to the basement for lessons, as far as Johnson remembers, during a time when children with disabilities were not integrated into the classrooms.
Johnson refused to let that happen to Will.
“So my wife and I took it into our own hands,” he said.
They started off with simple things like meeting at a playground.
“There is strength in numbers,” Johnson said, “so when your kid melts down, the other families understand.”
Once they saw how well the playground play dates went, things just took off from there. They now host a canoe fest, where the Oak Ridge Canoe and Kayak Club brings their equipment and lets the kids have a fun day on the lake, various camps and even a pageant.
“I kept networking with the parents to find out what they needed,” Johnson said. “Most of what they needed was simply friendship.”
This month’s Christmas party and February’s Miss Shining Star pageant are some examples of popular events hosted by Open Doors Tennessee. The Christmas party has had up to 100 kids attend, while the pageant has around that many children participate.
“There’s a place for everybody in the pageant,” Johnson said. “It’s super sweet.”
But despite the social opportunities available to Will, Johnson started to notice that he was struggling for about three years.
“Will was always a cut up,” Johnson said.
“He liked to joke, and it got to where that was going away. He was becoming monotone.”
Nothing worked to get him out of his slump, and the Johnsons were worried. But luckily, he had been teamed up with Kaylee Knoernschild as a peer mentor, and she had an idea.
“Her and Will just clicked,” said Johnson.
Kaylee has been a dedicated volunteer with Open Doors, but to Will especially.
“She’s part of our family,” he said.
So she suggested that he participate in cheerleading, and he’s been doing it ever since.
“It feels like he was meant to be here,” Kaylee said. “He’s the missing puzzle piece that we needed. He’s a goofy person and gets along with everyone.” His coach, Melanie McDaniel, has coached him all three years. She started coaching the same year Will started cheering.
“It’s been amazing to see the transformation,” she said. “There was an adjustment period. To see how they have all grown from year one has been amazing. The girls really take care of him. He brings them together. Sometimes nothing else will make them laugh, but he does.”
The cheerleaders make him happy, Will said. When asked who his best friend, he pointed directly at Kaylee.
“Punky,” he said.
He calls her Punky, and she calls him Pumpkin. She’s his peer buddy in the classroom, too. The girls FaceTime and Snapchat him every evening and include him on most of their social outings.
“This is an amazing group of girls,” said Will’s mom Kelly. “It gives me hope for the future.” The girls have also embraced Will’s younger brother, Matt, who came to ACHS as a freshman this year. He’s on the football team and had an immediate set of friends.
“He came in knowing 16 girls!” Kelly said.
For Johnson, it’s exactly what he’s always hoped for.
“His personal life keeps me hopping,” he said. “It’s changed our lives. This is more than I ever could have imagined. I knew Will could win them over, but I didn’t expect them to win me and my wife over like that. It is a family.”
The girls tell him that Will acts like a teenager when he’s not around.
He jokes and acts goofy right along with everyone else. At one point during his interview, a cheerleader ran over and gave him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek.
“You know I’m gonna wipe that off!” he called after her, making all the girls giggle.
In the past, when he was younger, Will’s social life revolved around a few birthday parties, most of those family friends. Now, Johnson hopes that Will’s life will bring hope and encouragement to other families.
“I hope it inspires other kids to reach out, too,” he said. “To help these kids get involved, because they offer so much. This generation has a lot of compassion. They grew up with inclusion, where my generation maybe didn’t.
“I remember when Will was 6, 7 and 8, and you felt like, this is as good as it’s going to get. I hope when people see the pictures I post of Will and the girls, that they see that it’s possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.”