By Christopher Oak Reinier

“We need to help one another.”

Debra Johnson, new President of the WCCS Board of Directors, is a very busy person. Busy at many things, including management of the Guerneville and Sebastopol Berkshire Hathaway Sonoma County Properties real estate agencies which she owns. But she made it her life’s mission in 2010 to advocate for solutions for homelessness, mental illness, alcohol and drug addictions which are suffered by too many in the West County community. And she is especially busy doing that.

Having survived a troubled youth in Southern California, Debra worked successfully with the Los Angeles Times for twenty years. Then, wanting something very different, she came to Guerneville in the early ‘90’s. She opened a coffee house/restaurant on Main Street, the Brew Moon, and she fell in love with the community. Fell in love with all of the community —those who could afford a double cappuccino mocha — and those who needed a free beverage, food, and a place out of the weather.

She has since served on several community boards, and has been Vice President of the Russian River Health Center and President of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce.

Debra attributes her empathy for the vulnerable in part to her abusive and destructive childhood.  She understands the long-term effects of growing up in a family ravaged by alcoholism. She knows how those family forces can break children, and can cause despair and anger that leads to adult addiction, mental illness and homelessness. “Many of our youth have horrific childhoods, people give up on them and they become angry castaway adults. We need to approach these issues with compassion and understanding to develop trusting relationships to bring about change.”

Other people saved Debra herself from a bitter, angry, and self-destructive adolescence she could have carried into adulthood. “I’m still alive because of the kindness of a few people who took the time to see me, not just my behavior. You can’t come from where I come from and not feel some obligation to step up and help others who are still suffering.” 

She has focused on housing and health care for the at-risk people among us, because she believes deficiencies in both housing and health care are at the root of the social problems the West County community is experiencing.

“This whole thing,” she says, “is bigger than us individually, and we need to come together to solve it. We are a bright, intelligent and very capable community, and we should be able to figure this out. The business community needs to start getting involved as well, because this is an economic issue that we need to do a much better job of management. Homelessness, mental illness and addiction are not good for anybody.”

And Debra has dedicated much of her life to doing something about it.