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Where there’s a need, there’s a class


She’s a gifted teacher, a community collaborator, an inspiration. She’s happiest juggling a variety of projects, grants, and classes. And she’s fiercely dedicated to helping people age independently. The beneficiaries of Sharon Johnson’s energy, creativity, and care are thousands of citizens in Southern Oregon. Thanks to her weekly newspaper columns and frequent television shows, her reach goes beyond Jackson and Josephine counties, where she is an OSU Extension faculty member managing classes, conferences, and a cadre of volunteers trained to respond to the needs of their communities’ aging population.

In community forums, local agency meetings, and informal gatherings, Sharon listens intently to learn about the needs of seniors. She asks questions, seeks out opinions, then goes into action searching throughout the community, state, and across the country for existing models to replicate, experts to involve, and funding to craft programs for seniors. Sharon’s programs all focus on educating and empowering individuals. “We are each in charge of our own health,” she says, “and the more tools and knowledge we have, the better equipped we are to be healthy throughout our lives.”

The grants that Sharon is currently managing reflect the balance of healthy aging. There’s the Strong Women program, which Sharon brought to Oregon from Tufts University, that’s now in five counties teaching strength, endurance, and flexibility. And the Medication Management Program, matching area seniors with OHSU College of Pharmacy interns who educate them about risks with their medications. Sharon’s practical workshops on Tricks and Techniques to Keep Your Memory Strong are popular across the state, and Tai Chi for Better Balance classes designed at the Oregon Research Institute and offered in Southern Oregon are at capacity.

Instructor Lillibet Gillespie, front, with Tai Chi for Better Balance students
Instructor Lillibet Gillespie, front, with Tai Chi for Better Balance students

“Where there’s a need, there’s a class” is the motto that prompts Sharon to design and deliver classes like Breast Cancer Over 50, Fall Prevention and Home Safety, Eating Well, and Coping and Caring for Aging Parents. She wants only programs that assure benefits and are sustainable. “There is plenty of research about best practices and lots of good models we can use to tailor our programs,” she says. “And when we fill a community need, we usually find a way to continue offering the programs.” Most often that’s thanks to the volunteers who are trained to teach classes in everything from nutrition to exercise to depression management. For the Stanford-based Chronic Disease Self-Management/Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Conditions program, Sharon and Stanford faculty together trained 58 volunteers in Southern Oregon who teach this popular six-class program.

Always say yes!
In 1967, with her sociology degree in hand from the University of Minnesota, Sharon set out to fulfill her dream of being a social worker. Always eager to learn, she said yes to new opportunities…a practice that took her to graduate school in rehabilitation counseling, to Cornell for a summer leadership program then into management positions including director of vocational rehabilitation and director of mental health for Washington State. “Then in 1990, my husband and I decided to take some time off,” says Sharon, “and I found my nirvana in Oregon…the perfect job, a bucolic rural setting in Jacksonville, and a welcoming, active community.” Her experience with her own aging parents sparked Sharon’s interest in working with seniors. “I learned that the best way for them to thrive in later life is to help them be independent.” And she revels in passing that wisdom on to seniors.