Will Johnson doesn’t go unrecognized in too many places around Reading. That’s because of the reputation he’s built up locally as a small business owner, grassroots community organizer and committed volunteer with a big heart (not to mention as a good cook).
It seems like wherever Will goes he finds himself trying to create a shared sense of community among the people around him, often centered around two things: food and basketball. And it starts with a hot dog cart.
The Hot Dog Cart
When Will moved from Philadelphia to Reading a few decades ago he brought his hot dog cart with him, and on Saturdays, started giving out hot dogs to the kids in his neighborhood (in Reading’s north side).
Neighbors started catching on and would call out to him on Saturday mornings to ask if he was planning to cook up some hot dogs that day, “Hey, Will! You cooking today? I’ll make some rice!” Others would drop food off on his porch for him to cook up.
They wanted to contribute. Soon, many of the residents on his block were coming together for these “pop-up” block parties, enjoying food, music and each other’s company.
“It made the neighborhood more family friendly. It was a community thing,” Will said.
Will also got to know his neighbors through the businesses he has owned. Among them, he ran “Will’s Variety and Sandwich Shop” in Reading, where he often sold to community members on good-faith credit. “Kids would come in and give me their mom’s order, and ask if she could pay them back on pay day, and I’d do it. I would keep track on a board behind the counter.”
Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church
Will’s been volunteering with Hope Lutheran Church, located on North Front and Greenwich Streets, for four years. He works with his partner Freida Molina to place the food pantry orders and take care of other administrative work and helps unload the truck and serve the food on Tuesday mornings.
He also likes to cook breakfast for the pantry volunteers before they begin,
“You can’t work on an empty stomach!”.
In the afternoon, Will partners with another volunteer, Mike Wolfe, to run the youth after school program. Each week, the coaches drive a group of 6-8th grade youth to Atonement Lutheran Church’s gym to play basketball together.
The Coaches’ dream for the program is to play a game with a real scoreboard. And although Coach Will is proud of the players’ improvement, he also recognizes
the underlying purpose of the group,
“They come here instead of fooling around,” he said, “And, it is good for their confidence.”
In the past, Will led cooking classes for the youth, utilizing the food pantry leftovers and church kitchen, “We’d prepare basic meals for the kids to eat and take home a plate to their parents who were coming home after a long day of work.”
The church staff and volunteers have plans to turn a nearby lot into a community garden and gathering space, and Will looks forward to getting back to cooking together – this time, using fresh produce that they have also grown together.
After dropping the youth back off at the church Will might stay around a little longer for the weekly Community Dinner, run by more committed volunteers, including both church members and residents who live around the corner.
Everyone is welcome to participate, he and the other volunteers said. The dinner begins at 5:30pm each Tuesday and is followed by a non-mandatory brief church service.
Will makes sure to recognize a specific person in making so much of Hope Lutheran’s efforts happen: The Reverend Mary Wolfe, “All of this is possible because of Pastor Mary!” he said while giving her a big hug and grin.
6th & Amity Playground – Annual Basketball Tournament
Last summer, the rundown state of the 6th and Amity playground didn’t sit well with Will, “This is where I take my grandkids,” he said. So, he went out and fixed it up. Local media outlets covered it, and that brought in some support and donations. But Will wasn’t finished yet, “After I got the park fixed up the kids weren’t coming, because there wasn’t anything for them to do,” he said. So, he started an annual youth basketball tournament.
Will partnered with ‘The Plug’ owner, Tyler Simmons, who committed to donating
shoes to the tournament’s winners, and he recruited Reading High School alumni to volunteer as coaches. Then, using fliers, social media and word-of-mouth, he began promoting the event.
A couple hundred youth showed up, both from the surrounding neighborhoods and wider Greater Reading. He’s already planning the 2nd annual tournament, to be held this July, and soliciting donations and volunteers, “We really need [basketball] jerseys,” he said.
Remembering Mr. Richard
As a kid Will had a neighbor named Mr. Richard, “He was the ‘father’ of the neighborhood,” Will remembered. Mr. Richard kept an eye on the neighborhood, sometimes scolding kids, but also encouraging them. Every once in a while, Mr. Richard would rent a bus and take the kids to an amusement park.
Will strives to be a little like Mr. Richard. “I’ve seen some of kids from the neighborhood grow up, and every once in a while one of them will come back around and tell me that they remember what I taught them…I hope for these kids to come back and say, ‘Thank you for keeping me out of trouble when I was a kid.’”
Will’s looking forward to getting his newest (and fourth) hot dog cart so he can get back to giving out hot dogs to the kids on Saturdays, “Every time I’d sell my cart, soon I’d say, ‘Oh, I need my hotdog cart back!’” And, he plans to station it outside Hope Lutheran Church on food pantry days to offer hot dogs to community members waiting in line.
Although Will doesn’t do any of this for recognition, he is glad to be recognized, to promote the good community efforts he’s part of — and to honor the memory of his mother, “I’ve done a lot of things for people, and didn’t ask for notoriety. [Being written about] would show that I did something.
My mom used to say, ‘Just do something. Be something.’ She passed, and now I showed that I am somebody, that I have done something.”
Will is also a proud member of the Free and Accepted Masons, Victor Lodge 73, Fourth Masonic District, works as a Security Officer and Supervisor for the Department of General Services, and has been happily married to his wife Donna Johnson for almost thirty years.