East Side native returned to his neighborhood to give back. He's getting national recognition

Marina Affo
Delaware News Journal

LaDaye “Cooley” Johnson doesn’t see himself as a boss.

Though he runs his own nonprofit Cool Shoes Inc., Johnson isn’t someone who comes into an office, turns on the lights and goes back to bed, letting others do the daily grind work. 

Instead, he turns on the lights and stays – to show kids in his East Side neighborhood the value of hard work and of giving back to a place that raised them. 

Johnson grew up in a single-parent household after his father left when he was 10, his mother doing the best she could. But Johnson credits a lot of the older men around him in Wilmington who steered him straight when he didn’t want to follow the right path. 

That path eventually led him to attending college and becoming a community leader who commands a local nonprofit that donates food, toys, book bags and other items to more than 1,000 families regularly throughout the year. 

His efforts, which have spanned the last decade, are now being celebrated nationally as Johnson has been named one of the national Jefferson Award winners for service to his community. 

The Jefferson Award recognizes those who have made an impact on their community, both young and old. Past recipients have included Robert De Niro, Oprah Winfrey, Harry Belafonte, Barbara Bush, Bill and Melinda Gates and Jimmy Carter.

The last time a Delawarean placed nationally was in 2017 when Cora and Fred Reed won for their work in Wilmington. The couple runs two local day cares, as well as Reeds Refuge, a free after-school arts program in northeast Wilmington that takes a holistic approach to nurturing budding rappers, dancers, DJs and fashion designers. 

LaDaye Johnson won a national Jefferson Award for community service in September.

Four other people won local Jefferson Awards alongside Johnson this year for outstanding service benefiting local communities – awards supported by the national nonprofit Multiplying Good in partnership locally with Delaware Online/The News Journal. These winners include Chase Marvil, Bob Reese and sisters Zaria and Hailey Willard. Many other people and organizations were also recognized for service in their workplaces, service projects in their communities and group volunteer efforts.

[Scroll down to read more about their work.]

To the people in Wilmington's East Side neighborhood, though, Johnson is just "Cooley," a man who refuses to give up on them and is determined to get his people the resources they need to thrive. 

“These people made me who I am," he said. "I’m not going to go nowhere else and get to know people that didn't make you who you are." 

Walking the streets of Wilmington’s East Side neighborhood recently, Johnson was greeted with fist bumps, handshakes, cars honking, and kids and adults alike throwing out “Hey, Cooley!”

As he told his life story of growing up on the same streets he walked, he knew the faces of many who passed by on foot and in cars.

Pointing at red brick stoops with summertime decorations and small barbecue grills from a long summer spent mostly at home, Johnson named the families that have for decades owned the modest row homes that line East Ninth Street. 

Howard senior Tonia Mitchell, center, is pictured with Ladaye Johnson and Joyce Dixon Thursday, May 28, 2020 after receiving a graduation gift bag.

Small groups of people gathered in front of homes to chitchat, nodding in greeting as Johnson walked by. An old storefront stood empty nearby as construction workers fixed nearby roofs. 

While the community centers of his youth are gone and some of the people gone too, Johnson knows the streets and sidewalks like the back of his hand, expertly weaving through his neighborhood and saying hello to folks along the way.

Johnson was born Oct. 3, 1983, right in the heart of the East Side. There, he had a front-row seat to Wilmington's drug scene, as the neighborhood was one of the hot spots. 

MORE ON THE JEFFERSON AWARD: Wilmington native wins Jefferson Award for ongoing service to Delaware community

“This was probably one of the biggest drug neighborhoods in the city of Wilmington,” he recalled. 

A lover of basketball, he used to go to one of the multiple community centers to play with the older boys and to learn from the men there. 

One of those mentors was Stan Waterman, now the dean of students at the Sanford School. 

COACH OF THE YEAR: Sanford's Stan Waterman named DSBA Coach of the Year

“It is inspirational; it really is," Waterman said. "He has inspired, I would say, a whole generation of people in our community to even think about giving back – and particularly giving back to a neighborhood that you grew up in. He's never forgotten where he's come from." 

While the older men around him made him want for nothing and took a lot of pressure off his mother to help raise him, Johnson’s life was not without its speed bumps. 

He described a neighborhood where people were making beaucoup bucks off drug dealing and said it was easy to get caught up in the mess. 

From left, LaDaye Johnson and his brother, Jaron Johnson hand out 400 turkeys from a rented U-Haul in Wilmington's East Side.

When Johnson was 14, he did get caught in the middle of the drugs and violence and was shot on the other side of town. It took him 90 days to recover from the shooting and afterward, he decided to drop out of high school.

Reflecting on it now, he says dropping out of high school wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to him because a lot of the people who were having negative influences on his life dropped him. This allowed Waterman and other older Black men to set Johnson back on the right path. 

LaDaye Johnson, 32, (standing) organized the Cool Shoes Inc. Summer Camp.

Read more about LaDaye's work here: 

“My favorite quote is, ‘You know the sidewalks and you got the streets,’ and I wasn’t built for the streets,” he said. “I learned to be on the sidewalk because people respect you for being yourself.”

After he dropped out of high school, though, his mentors never gave up on him. Johnson eventually went on to get a degree in criminal justice from Lincoln University in 2011. 

A year before he graduated from college, he came back to his neighborhood and saw the state of things. 

“This young generation, they don't know how to not separate themselves," Johnson said. "They think being a follower is the best thing, which it’s not. They don’t know how to be different.” 

He said he wanted to give back to his community by helping the people he felt were the most disadvantaged: the youth. 

So around 2010, Johnson hosted his first Easter egg hunt.

What started as one event became an annual Easter egg hunt, a summer camp for kids to explore their passions, Thanksgiving turkey giveaways that have attracted over 1,000 people annually and book bag giveaways and toy drives that bring smiles to neighborhood children every year. 

Maurice Hunter grew up with Johnson in the same neighborhood. Their families were close and Hunter, being a few years older than Johnson, saw him grow up. 

Hunter remembers when Johnson was at Salem Community College before transferring to Lincoln. One day, the pair were talking about the future.

At the time, Hunter thought Johnson – an avid basketball player who many thought would go on to play professionally – still had his sights on the NBA. But out of nowhere, Johnson told him he was just hoping to graduate college and go back to his neighborhood. 

"He was like 'Man, I'm going to go back to help my community,'" Hunter said. 

And he kept his word. 

"He really took it to a whole other step and started giving back and blessing these young kids in the community," Hunter said. 

Most of it was through his own money at the start. Even now, much of Johnson's work is not funded through city or state grants, he said. Johnson has grown the donations and programs simply by working with people inside and outside the community who believe in what he is doing. 

LaDaye "Cooley" Johnson gives instructions to all the people waiting in line to get their toys. The Wilmington East Side native helped distribute thousands of toys on Christmas Eve.

"I am truly, truly proud of Cooley," said Desiree Bell. "It goes beyond words."

Bell, a child care provider in East Side, has known Johnson since he was a kid. Watching a young Black man go through what Johnson went through, Bell said, and then come back and do so much for the children of the East Side neighborhood makes her want to thank God. 

"I just want to give God the glory because what he's doing in Cooley's life. Cooley is giving it back to the community," she said. 

Johnson shares his story of redemption with area kids all the time. Not as a point of pride, he said, but as both a warning and an inspiration. Being yourself and engaging with your passions is how you get far in life, he tells them. 

But he also understands the limitations put on the youth in his neighborhood. 

“They don't have the resources, you know, and it's a shame,” he said. “That's why we get involved, to try to get them the things we had.”

City officials like the mayor and City Council members have their own agenda, Johnson said, and they’re not on the ground with him supporting the community that many of them come from. He said he finds it sad that many of the local elected officials are not doing more for the communities they purport to support. 

Kids get to select two toys for Christmas courtesy of LaDaye "Cooley" Johnson's efforts, a Wilmington East Side native who works to give back to the community that raised him.

When he was growing up, he counted at least six community centers within walking distance of the East Side neighborhood. 

“We had parties. We had the skating rinks. We had the community centers," he said. "It was fun. We was being kids." 

But that is why he is working hard to get a community center opened up on the East Side. 

If kids were given an outlet for their cries for attention, as well as guidance and support, there would be less violence and more of them actually going on to lead good lives, Johnson said. 

He knows he will have to start small but is hoping to get support soon to start that project. 

“I'm gonna stay home and we're gonna fight this battle,” he said. 

Outstanding Service Benefiting Local Communities winners 

In addition to LaDaye Johnson, the following four people also won in this category:

Bob Reese, a retired Air Force Master Sgt., was inspired by his parents’ generosity around the holidays so for the last 15 years, he and volunteers have hosted a holiday meal for servicemen at Dover Air Force Base.

Chase Marvil won a local Jefferson Award for creating the Inspiring Project, which aims to eliminate bullying and suicidal thoughts in people through social media, presentations and an "Impact Night" at a local library.

Sisters Zaria and Hailey Willard won a local Jefferson Award for reading aloud to children around the state on social media every night in hopes of bettering Delaware's reading statistics.

Contact Marina Affo at maffo@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @marina_affo.