Debra A. Johnson Photo by: Christopher Nyerges

Debra A. Johnson


A winning SMILE

Altadena’s Debra A. Johnson wants you to leave Earth better than you found it

By Christopher Nyerges 04/15/2010

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If you happen to tune into Pasadena Community Network Channel 32, Arroyo 32, in the early morning or early evening Tuesdays and Thursdays and see longtime Altadena resident Debra A. Johnson, also known as “The SMILE Lady,” don’t turn that dial.
SMILE is Johnson’s acronym for Support, Motivate, Invest, Love and Educate. And Johnson is on a mission, one “to promote all aspects of SMILE and to spread a little joy,” she said.
“I want to help your child tap into their inner SMILE and purpose. After all, we were all born to SMILE and we’re all destined to leave this place better than we found it,” Johnson said.
To Johnson, taking a “green path” is not just a passing fad, but a way of life. Born in Manhattan and raised in Cleveland in the 1950s, Johnson said she was very poor while growing up. “We had to reuse everything, eat the leftovers, hand down the clothing, shop in surplus stores, collect bottles, save energy and even warm up the house with the oven cooking in the winter,” she recalled. “We had home-cooked meals, homemade bread, we ate dandelion weeds from the yard and we did not think anything of it. It all came natural. We went ‘green,’ even if we did not want to.”
Johnson actually lives the “green life” that she espouses on her TV show. She worm composts, feeding them vegetable and yard scraps, returns her garment bag to the cleaners, reuses the back of junk advertising paper for printing and turns in her printer ink cartridges and old electronic equipment. She also collects bottles and cans.
Along with that, Johnson gardens, walks when she can and is currently switching her light bulbs to compact florescent bulbs in order to save energy.
“I wash most of my clothes in cold water also. I also teach the younger children and their parents at every opportunity, by my example, to reuse wrapping paper, gift bags and cards. I make them into cute post cards or art. There are so many ways to make this world a better place than when we found it,” said Johnson, who has lived in Altadena since 1978 and, over the years, earned several awards, including Woman of the Year Altadena in 2005 from Congressman Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena.
Johnson, who is a grandmother, is also the self-proclaimed “green monitor” at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Altadena, where she is a Sunday school teacher. In addition, she volunteers with the Pasadena Unified School District as an educational surrogate, mentor and teacher of basic social skills, basic sign language, introductory Spanish and nutrition. 
Johnson explains that SMILE actually got started out of her living room and former church about 1992 before there were any afterschool programs for younger children.
“There was a need to keep the children busy, and I preferred that the children would hang out at my house in Altadena than on the street. It was primarily for girls and we would do everything from cooking to clear water facials, talent shows, girl discussions, and, of course, eat.”
In 2002, a girl from Rose City High School, a Pasadena continuation school, said she wanted the program in that school. So Johnson modified her program and took it to Rose City for about three years. Then she took it to group homes and other local elementary schools. In this program, she reinforces basic social skills and encourages people to work on improving their memories and write journals.
“At times I have been told that SMILE is too cheesy. But I believe that every child is gifted, and we just have to tap into the child’s gift,” she said. “I believe that we just have to pay more attention to our youth, who are being greatly influenced by the media. The youth today are losing their own dream and losing their sense of purpose. The principles of SMILE — to support each other, to motivate to greatness, to invest in our youth and community, to love and to constantly educate — will encourage our youth to ‘live green’ and to leave this place better than they found it.”

“The SMILE Lady” airs at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Tuesday and at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thursday on Pasadena Community Network Channel 32. Johnson can be reached at or by calling (626) 797-3760 or writing to P.O. Box 91841, Pasadena, Calif., 91109-1841. You can also view the show online at by clicking "The Arroyo Channel.”

Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041.


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