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HANFORD — Finally an answer has been found for any parent of a student who has returned home from school, without their jacket.

Retired teacher and president of nonprofit organization Helping Other People Everywhere — or HOPE — Darleen Johnson has been collecting unclaimed jackets and coats from the lost and found boxes of local high schools for year.

The clothes then find new homes, going for many years to students in Kenya, as well as local children in need. This year, Johnson has re-gifted hundreds of jackets and coats to those affected by the Camp Fire in northern California.

“I just hate to see anything go to waste. I was a teacher for 37 years and every year I saw black bags just being thrown away. It just irritated me for so many years and I thought, ‘someone should do something about that’ and, well, my mama always told me I would grow up and be somebody,” Johnson said, and with a laugh added “And I am. I am the laundry queen of Hanford.”

Last week Johnson and her husband Elden, known to friends as “Johnny,” took a “nice drive,” as she called it, to Gridley to drop off a carful of jackets and coats for victims of the Camp Fire. The fire is the most destructive in California history and has left at least 88 dead. More than 13,000 homes have been consumed. The fire was contained earlier this week.

The destruction caused by the fire prompted Johnson to want help, donating the once-lost and forgotten items to the people whose lives were all but ruined by the fire.

“The ones who really need them are the ones living in those tents – and they need them now. They have nothing,” Johnson said.

The Rotary Club of Gridley will distribute the donated items among the community.

Gridley is about 40 miles south of Paradise and 60 miles north of Sacramento.

Each year, Johnson collects around 2,000 coats and jackets from the lost-and-founds of local high schools. She spends her summer washing and cleaning them, as well as making mends and fixes if needed. If anything is damaged beyond repair, it’s donated to local animal shelters to be used as bedding for dogs.

The Johnsons are both retired school teachers with children who now teach.

“My daughter teaches in the same class room I used to teach in,” Darleen said.

The couple’s first date was watching the historic moon landing in 1959. Since then, they’ve had nine dates in Kenya where, through Darleen’s HOPE organization, they have raised funds and donated items for local children, many of whom have grown to affectionately refer to the couple as “mama” and “baba,” she said.

“The whole community has been lifted up,” she said.

Through the organization, which receives help and support from many Kings County students and teachers, they have seen the small town of Nakuru grow. Students attending the towns Hopewell High learn skills, which they use to further grow their community after graduation. For example, students may learn carpentry skills which they will later use to help build furniture for the school.

Johnny, a local Rotarian, has also secured international grants from the organization to help build additions like school’s library.

Funds have also been secured for computers, food and bicycles to help students get to class.

“We make enough money that we can afford to be generous,” she said.  

When asked why she has devotes such time and resources to the Kenyan students, local causes and not fire victims, she quoted a doctor in Kenya who worked to alleviate the AIDS epidemic in the region.

“My students will ask me, ‘Mrs. Johnson, why do you do this?’ and I say, ‘history has made it ours to do. It needs to be done,’” she said.

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