the sale to “play Santa” to local charities. “That has been a lot of fun,” she said.
She contributed to REAL Life, a nonprofit to help people who are incarcerated, homeless or battling addictions — or in all three situations — turn their lives around.
“The problem of addiction is so tragic in Richmond and all over the country,” said REAL Life founder Sarah Scarbrough. REAL stands for Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles.
“Debbie has a personal passion for what we do because she lost someone close to her to an opioid overdose,” Scarbrough said.
A garden in her friend’s memory was established at a REAL Life recovery house in the Blackwell neighborhood in Richmond.
“Debbie is such a modest, humble woman,” Scarbrough said. “She operates from her heart. That is what I love about her. She is not scripted.”
A charity even closer to her heart is Connecting Hearts, which Johnston started in 2014 to connect potential parents with child placement services and increase awareness of the critical need in Virginia for foster families and adoptions.
“We have done a beautiful job,” said Johnston, noting that the number of adoptions increased last year to 850 from about 600 in previous years.
Connecting Hearts recently partnered with Jewish Family Services to handle the growing volume.
Adoption is a personal issue for Johnston.
At age 3, she was adopted into her family of four sisters and one brother. They grew up in a one-bathroom house on a farm in Varina. Her late mother, Eunice, once described her as the family’s “guardian angel.”
Johnston was appointed Virginia’s Adoption Champion in 2014 by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
She serves on the Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority and is involved with Unity of Richmond Church, teaching a class on prosperity, forgiveness, loving and how to set goals.
“I take life one day at a time,” Johnston said. “I want people to know that they don’t have to navigate the health care system alone.
“It’s very difficult, and we’re here if you need us to help you with that.”