Thursday, May 20, 1999

J.J.'s babies are endless gift to neighborhood




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One woman. Just one. She had this idea that she might be able to do something for the kids in her neighborhood. Her neighborhood is Madisonville, and things were not good.

        It was right after a shooting, nearly 10 years ago. “The neighborhood was polarized,” she says. “Black and white.” The woman, J.J. Johnson-JioDucci, is a little on the color-blind side herself. OK, very color blind. And very determined.

        An executive at Key Bank, she takes me into her office to show off pictures of her “babies.” Graduations, birthdays, just hanging out. “Nadia, dean's list at OSU. Noran, Mount St. Joseph this fall. Jacob, majoring in zoology,” goes her running commentary.

        Success stories.

        J.J. did not give birth to these children. She has simply claimed the right to care about them. “I grew up in Avondale at a time when everybody took care of everybody,” she says.

        So it wasn't much of a stretch to fork over $25 to get the same thing going in her new neighborhood. That was the seed money for Students Concerned About Today and Tomorrow (SCATT). The half-dozen charter members met at least once a week, sold candy door-to-door and raised $600 in four months — in time for Christmas of 1991.

        They bought a community Christmas tree, toiletries and canned goods for the needy. Since then, new “classes” have adopted a park, made a video, written a book, traveled to Chicago and Washington, attended countless lectures — voluntarily — and just generally made themselves useful.

        They are a familiar sight in the neighborhood in their purple and white T-shirts. And a comforting one. One project was taking their elderly neighbors out to dinner. “A lot of the seniors were terrified of young people,” J.J. says. SCATT-sters raised the money, picked out a nice restaurant. They dressed up to escort their dates.

        “Respect,” J.J. says. “They were learning respect.”

        And discipline, I am guessing.

Earning the title
        J.J., at age 42, is not their pal. She is a grown-up influence. They call her Ms. J.J. or Ms. JioDucci. They notice that she has a fancy job with a big company. She will be pleased to tell them how that came about.

        Hard work. Education.

        It doesn't always mean college. J.J., who graduated from Withrow High School and Xavier University, is no academic snob. One of her first “babies,” Matthew, still calls her, sometimes on his cell phone, sometimes hanging from a scaffolding. “He always wanted to work with his hands,” she says.

        “If I ever need to be set straight, I know I can call you,” he wrote in a tribute to her, assembled by the kids. She is stepping down from her post as volunteer director of the group. But “they know where to find me.”

        As these things sometimes happen, if they are ideal, the organization is strong enough to survive without its founder. Maybe even grow. Parents and the kids themselves will take over. College scholarships — two every year — will be wrestled out of candy and garage sales. Some, like Steve, will return to the neighborhood to raise their own babies.

        But they will be prepared for that big neighborhood we all belong to, having broken bread with people not their age or their color, having worked to give something to somebody else. They know they can be like Ms. J.J. Successful. A leader. Member of a team. A good neighbor. She is that overworked and generally undeserved term, role model.

        If you were standing in the middle of this group of young people — this rainbow of faces — with J.J., you might assume she's a single parent. In a very real way, you would be right. And if you were to ask her which child belongs to her, she would tell you.

        All of them.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU-FM radio and NPR's Morning Edition.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE