When Sharmin Doering ’81, M.S. ’87, read about Donald Johnson ’13 and his journey to Illinois State University and the Department of Agriculture, she knew she had to learn more about this exceptional student.

Doering serves as executive director and Community Services Block Grant coordinator for the Sangamon County Department of Community Resources in Springfield, and she thought Johnson’s story would inspire her junior gardeners.

Doering leads strategic planning for the community, determining where gaps in services are in the community. “In 2012, our strategic planning revealed the need to address nutrition, specifically access to fresh food,” Doering said. Through partnerships in the Springfield community that Doering coordinated, students ranging in age from 5 to 10 years have been able to participate in the junior garden initiative and fresh food program and receive nutrition education.

Johnson, along with his fiancee, Kelly, and mother, Beatrice, traveled to Springfield June 26 to participate in Doering’s program. Upon their arrival, Johnson and his family had dinner with the Community Garden organization directors.

The next day began with a press conference at the program’s Seeds of Possibility Garden, and after that, Johnson and his family worked in the program’s children’s garden to harvest strawberries and pull weeds. After working in the garden, Johnson and his family took a short tour of the Lincoln Presidential Library.

The event concluded with a Destination Dinner Table, where Johnson gave a presentation about his experiences growing up in Chicago and his journey to become a seed scientist. During the dinner an executive chef taught the families how to prepare the meal that they were eating. After dinner, each participating family took home the ingredients (produce from the garden and items from a local food store) so that they could repeat the healthy dinner themselves.

“The best part of having Donald there was to serve as a role model for the young girls and boys,” Doering said. “They were able to see how an individual can overcome barriers in life and still be extremely successful if they aspire to do something they love. Donald and his mother also encouraged parents to never give up on their children; that everyone can do something well.”