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.