Unsung Hero: Candice Johnston

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At first glance, Candace Johnston’s room is that of a typical 13-year-old girl. It’s not as clean as her mother, Kimberly, would want it.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Working to make sure those with less don’t go without the essentials, 13-year-old Candace Johnston clips coupons to find great deals on groceries and toiletries, then donates the items to those in need.

There are posters of numerous Lady Lobos adorning the walls and her unmade bed is covered with a zebra-striped comforter, washed with pink.

In the corner is a leopard print upholstered chair, shaped like a high heel.

But in one corner is something kind of unusual — a plastic organizer with four deep drawers. In those drawers are hundreds of coupons, arranged neatly in binders, folders and plastic wallets.

One might think this is some kind of odd teenage trend gone wrong. She certainly doesn’t look like a typical middle-aged housewife, clipping coupons while watching the evening news.

Instead, Candace is a girl with a broad, beaming smile who clips coupons for a very specific purpose — to help as many people as she can.

Candace practices what she calls “extreme couponing,” collecting coupons to get food and school supplies at a reduced rate or at no cost at all. Her most prized possession and favorite Christmas gift? A paper cutter.

Most of the items she buys with her savings are stockpiled in a spare room down the hall from her bedroom. Six-foot shelves hold bottle after bottle of shampoo, mouth wash, deodorant, razors, artificial sweetener, toothpaste, macaroni and cheese, salad dressing, cookies, cake mixes, cereal … it goes on and on.

“I try to donate a lot of it, but I keep some of it so if a neighbor needs something, I have it,” Candace said.

Kimberly said word gets out that they have necessary items in surplus at their Huning Ranch home and people will literally knock on the door seeking help.

And recently, she has taken to writing or calling the toll-free numbers of the manufacturers of products she likes.

That positive praise to corporations has resulted in free products that she puts away for someone in need. Recently she contacted Similac, a maker of infant formula, asking for supplies for a mother-to-be she knows.

“She’s going to have a baby soon, and she doesn’t have a lot,” Candace said. “So, I just asked if they could send some stuff.”

Sure enough, a box with formula samples showed up on their doorstep a few weeks later.

From a very young age, Kimberly said Candace has been willing to give to others.

“She gets it. She is the type of kid who is satisfied with what she has,” Kimberly said.

To that end, Candace spends a lot of time gathering up toys, treats and school supplies to give away to individuals she knows are in need, as well as helping to support the efforts of local groups, such as the Toys for Tots from Cops program sponsored by the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office.

Not only does she spend countless hours gathering up things to give away, but Candace spent last year dressed as an elf, handing out Christmas presents and goodies.

“I just try to find people that need something,” Candace said. She shrugs. “I have a lot of stuff and someone else might not have anything.”

Kimberly says in addition to her natural propensity for giving, Candace’s attitude and approach to life comes a great deal from her upbringing.

“As a single parent, I make a point to be very open and honest about everything — alcohol, drugs … sex — and the consequences,” Kimberly said. Candace looks mildly embarrassed and rolls her eyes a bit.

But her stance on issues such as DWI comes from being in the vehicle with a drunk driver as a young child.

“People die from drunk drivers, and I think if we have more people to stop that, there will be less people who get hurt,” she said. “I even had my mom sign a contract that she won’t have alcohol in the house.”

Candace has partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and was appointed as state ambassador of Children Against Drunk Driving in 2005.

She gave her phone number to children she met who said they had family members who drank a lot, so they could call her if they found themselves in a car with a drunk driver, she said.

Candace has attended two town hall meetings as a representative of Children Against Drunk Driving with Valencia County Youth Development, Inc.

“We’ve done different things with MADD,” Candace said. “We’ve done (victim) impact panels and things like that, but it’s mostly the interaction with officers here in Valencia County and Bernalillo.”

She has also made it her mission to make sure local law enforcement officers have refreshments and water during the DWI checkpoints, which she calls “Lollipops for Law Enforcement.”

“I think that the officers should be rewarded for all their hard work,” she said.

So, she talks to local restaurants to work out special prices she can afford, and takes meals, coffee or some type of refreshment to the officers. Sometimes, local restaurants donate the food, she said.

She also donated more than 20 sets of school supplies to children in need, with money she raised for her organization, Lollipops for Law Enforcement.

Candace was given a New Mexico Department of Safety award by New Mexico State Police Chief Robert Schilling in June for her contributions to the state DWI program.

She was named an honorary state police officer by Shilling. Candace is the youngest recipient to ever receive this award. She was given her own badge and a certificate of the award.

And just like her determination to help, Candace has a clear vision of her future.

She wants to go to Harvard and go into family law. She got a jump start on that law education by working for local attorney Elias Barela this past summer.

Barela said the very first thing he noticed about Candace was that she saw the big picture.

“She’s like no 13 year old I’ve ever met. She’s genuinely interested in being out there and being involved with the community. This kind of activism from a child is really rare,” Barela said. “What really impresses me is how much of her free time she is willing to give up to help other people.”

Candace spent her time filing and running various errands for Barela. During her time working in his office, the attorney said he found her to be very inquisitive about the law.

“She was very interested in learning about what the laws are about,” he said. “Everything she does, she does because she cares. She is an activist who is interested in helping people who are struggling and she’s got a big heart.

“She is really a rare individual in intellect, work ethic. The things that give her pleasure are oriented towards helping others.”

Kimberly says there is always something her daughter is working on and involved in that benefits someone else.

“Every month, there’s something,” she said. “It’s pretty much on going with everybody.”

Her most recent project is “Jeans for Teens,” sponsored by clothing manufacturer Aeropostale. The company is sponsoring a contest across the nation to see which school can donate the most pairs of jeans. In turn, Aeropostale gives the pants to homeless teens.

Candace decided to get involved with the program when she heard of a student at Los Lunas Middle School who’s family was living in a tent.

“I just thought, ‘I have to do something. That’s awful,’” she said.

The school that collects the most jeans gets a pair of jeans for each student and $5,000 for the school.

“I really like to help other people,” Candace said. “I like to see people smile, that’s what makes me feel good inside.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.