“Grace Johansen was born and raised in Narrowsburg, New York, on the banks of the Delaware River. She dedicated her life to volunteerism and community service, helping to found the Narrowsburg …
“Grace Johansen was born and raised in Narrowsburg, New York, on the banks of the Delaware River. She dedicated her life to volunteerism and community service, helping to found the Narrowsburg branch of the Western-Sullivan Library and the Tusten Historical Society, which she served as president of for more than 25 years.
“Throughout her life, Grace was deeply passionate about supporting local youth and helping others feel invested in the success of the region. Her family established the Grace Johansen Memorial Foundation (GJMF) after her death to further this mission by providing scholarships to local high school students who demonstrate an interest in bettering their community. Grace’s legacy lives on in the kindness we share with each other as we strive to create a friendlier, more cohesive Catskills community.”
I learned all of the above by looking at the foundation’s website, but wanting to delve deeper, I reached out to GJMF president and founder, Grace’s grandson, Leif K. Johansen.
Jonathan Charles Fox: I know very little about the foundation, and some of our readers know even less. Can you fill me in?
Leif K. Johansen: Grace Johansen was my father’s mother. Throughout her 86 years of life, she was thoroughly dedicated to her community. I can’t help but smile when I think about her because her passion, her drive, and her optimism were contagious. She was the sort of person who considered strangers to be “your best friends that you just haven’t met yet.”
She knew, better than anyone else I’ve ever met, that if you want to get something done, and done the right way, you’ve got to bring people together and tear down walls instead of building them up.
JCF: I understand that Grace was the founder and president of the Tusten Historical Society. What can you tell me about that?
LKJ: For more than two decades, she did some really cool work there. At the time of her death, she had been finishing up work on a book about the history of Narrowsburg. She had a large family and, just after she passed, some of my father’s brothers and sisters teamed up, finished putting the book together and published it.
JCF: How did the foundation come into being?
LKJ: When she passed away [in 2015], there was this palpable void and we all felt her absence, not just in a familial way when you lose someone, but in a broader sense, like something had just taken a big bite out of the community. I was about to turn 17 and we had all been thinking about doing something meaningful to preserve her memory—something that she would really get a kick out of.
My grandmother knew that young people were the movers and shakers of tomorrow, and I thought it would be really cool if we could start some kind of nonprofit setup that would concretely and positively impact young people’s lives in the community. I got in touch with the whole family and we pooled some money and gave out our first $500 scholarship to a student graduating from the Sullivan West School District.
JCF: What were the criteria for a scholarship recipient?
LKJ: We were looking specifically for someone who held the same values as my gram did—a young person who was dedicated to having a positive impact on the community through service and volunteerism.
JCF: Don’t a lot of students just want to graduate and leave the region? What is the message the scholarships are giving to them?
LKJ: Sure, it’s only natural that some will eventually move out of the area, but we at the GJMF are saying to young people that are here in the community right now that we want them to get involved and gain a sense of responsibility for their community. We want a new generation of people to understand that they have skin in the game.
JCF: So, you just started giving out money?
LKJ: We weren’t even incorporated back then, but you don’t need to be incorporated in order to simply help someone out. Still, we... formed a scholarship review committee and asked students to write a short essay on their involvement in the community and how the community had impacted them.
After that, I began looking into how a nonprofit was formed. It took a few years, but after giving out a few more scholarships, we officially became incorporated as the Grace Johansen Memorial Foundation in 2019.
JCF: Why was this all so important to you? Why take on such a Herculean task?
LKJ: I felt that young people don’t have a sense of legitimacy just because we don’t have 30 years of experience behind us to say that we are trustworthy people and that we care about things. As a young person, it was important to me to legitimatize what we were doing because I was only 20 years old and running this project.
And in a real concrete sense, if you want to be able to raise money and offer tax exemptions to those who donate, you need to take the necessary steps of making [the corporation] legitimate and real.
There was a steep learning curve and I definitely didn’t do it alone. My mother is the director of the Mamakating Library in Wurtsboro and gave me excellent advice all the way through the process. In addition, some family members teamed up with others from the community to form our board.
JCF: But you’re the president. That sounds like a lot of responsibility. How did you handle the pressure?
LKJ: There were times when I felt like an imposter, like I shouldn’t be sitting at the head of the table dictating our agenda to the others on the board, but I got used to it over time and realized it was just like any other job, except you don’t make money doing it. I think that helped the imposter syndrome go away.
JCF: What is the foundation’s ultimate goal?
LKJ: Our goal is to do as much good as possible within our mission, which is to get young people more involved in their communities, specifically young people in Sullivan County. A lot of young people in rural areas have a sense of hopelessness, frankly, and I believe that they don’t want to live like that. On a broad scale, the foundation’s aim is to incentivize young people and get them involved.
There are service and volunteer opportunities to be had and, in turn, serving the community in this way will help them get into the schools they want to attend and serve them well wherever life takes them in the future. I think [that] when you get involved like this as a young person, it sticks with you your whole life. We at the GJMF want young people to understand that there isn’t a “me over here and the community over there” situation, but rather [think of themselves] as an integral part of the community, and [that] the strength of the community is a direct result of their participation in it.
We want young people from our Sullivan County home to take that sense that our own identities are inextricably tied to the identity of our community with them wherever they go in life, because it applies no matter where we are. I believe that Grace would have wanted exactly that.
Grant applications are still available, but for a limited time. To learn more, visit www.gracejohansenfoundation.org.