Levon Johnson didn’t learn to read until fifth grade.
“Everyone thought I was the smartest kid in school, but I couldn’t read,” he said. But he built coping skills. “My interest was in my chemistry set.”
After making his own rocket fuel, Johnson started making bootleg rockets, causing his father to ask him why “everything that interests you goes whoosh or bang.”
In 1968, Johnson joined the U.S. Coast Guard and volunteered for Squadron One in Vietnam. He didn’t get it, serving instead for four years on two ships based in Baltimore. When he finished his service, Johnson transitioned into a career in industrial manufacturing and machining, specializing in draftsmanship.
“I could draw whatever I made and make whatever I drew,” he said. He loved American manufacturing and recalled how, when he came to Atlanta in 1976 from Augusta, Ga., he thought it was the “Detroit of the south.” But after declining for years, the industry collapsed by the early 2000s. Johnson retired in 2014.
Over the next two years, Johnson would face some medical issues, including poor dental health. It had been 18 years since he’d seen a dentist. He had rotting teeth, was depressed and had lost his self-esteem – until “a nice lady, like an angel of hope” appeared. She was a home healthcare nurse sent by his insurance company.
“I was lonely and upset. I had lost my career. She said if you get your teeth fixed, you’re going to be happy.” The problem was, he couldn’t afford it. She suggested he call the Ben Massell Dental Clinic (BMDC) in Midtown. A program of JF&CS, BMDC is the only free, comprehensive, full-service dental clinic in the area and serves Atlanta’s neediest population. A private family grant allows BMDC to provide care to U.S. veterans, a community with diverse needs.
“The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs serves many patients here in Atlanta, but qualifying for dental treatment requires a much greater disability than medical, so many veterans need additional services,” said Keith Kirshner, director of BMDC. “We can provide vets with dental services, medical services through our partners, counseling and job placement skills.”
For Johnson, that meant surgical services and new dentures.
“It’s hard going to job interviews knowing you have these ugly teeth in your mouth,” said Johnson. “You can’t meet anybody looking like you’ve been on a desert island for 25 years. But here’s a place where I can receive all this extensive work to help me improve my life. Once I get my dentures, I’m going to feel like a new person, and the whole world is going to open up to me.”
Already, Johnson has come a long way since he first came to the clinic in September 2016. In March 2017, he began seeing Cherise Washington, a JF&CS clinician based at BMDC, for motivational career counseling.
“It has been a pleasure working with Mr. Johnson,” said Washington. “He brings a sense of confidence and drive as he transitions back into the field he loves.” She’s inspired by his dedication to treating others with kindness and “bringing hope into their lives.”
Johnson credits her for getting him to start drawing again. He has begun to develop 3-D conceptualizations for “miniature” homes. Demand for these “tiny houses” appears to be rising in the area, and Johnson hopes to find an investor. He also is writing a book based on his old career, and Washington is helping him stay focused and organized.
It couldn’t happen if he didn’t have the confidence in himself, and anyone who meets him can see it. For Johnson, like so many who come to BMDC, it comes down to a smile.
“For everyone in our community, a smile is critical,” said Kirshner. “It’s one small thing we can do to help them.”
To learn more about BMDC, visit www.jfcsatl.org/bmdc.