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Richmond Times-Dispatch - - COMMERCIAL NOTES -

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.”

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