Ebony Johnson's enthusiastic service at a Dunkin' location in Ohio is so memorable that regular customer Suzanne Burke noticed when she had not been working the drive-thru for a few weeks in March.
When Johnson, 33, returned to work at the Mount Healthy location, where she's been employed for three years, she shared with Burke that she had been struggling financially while also trying to find housing for her and her three children following an eviction.
"I wanted to give up," Johnson told TODAY Food. "I cried. I come to work every day and nobody knows what I'm going through because I always try to have a smile for our customers."
Burke left Johnson a note saying that if Johnson wanted help, Burke would gladly do her best. Johnson accepted, and Burke, who has done work with social services in her career, got to work on reaching out to different businesses and organizations.
It all led to a moment nine months in the making on Dec. 3 when Johnson broke down in tears and her young children broke out in smiles when they moved into a fully furnished apartment in Cincinnati.
"Oh my God, it was so amazing, I just busted out crying," Johnson said. "I never had a full furnished house. I never had help like this. I had been asking God to put us in a home before Christmas, and He really did. I'm just so thankful."
"It was so exciting, we all cried," Burke told TODAY. "I've got three kids, and I can’t imagine not having a home to go to and then to have to get up, get the kids to school, and show up at work with a positive, happy attitude? I’ve been in awe of her."
Johnson said her family had not had permanent housing since being evicted in March 2020, so being able to move into their new apartment this month has been a 21-month ordeal. They have alternated living with different family members, bouncing from cramped place to cramped place.
"It's been so much we've been through," she said. "I just keep going. I think about my kids every day. I can't give up because then what is going to happen to them?"
When Burke learned late last month that Johnson would be getting the apartment, she asked Johnson if she had any furniture for it. She said she did not have anything, so Burke reached out to Design to Market, a real estate staging company owned by her friend, Jo Potvin.
The company donated a majority of the furniture and also enlisted the help of New Life Furniture Bank, which makes household items available to those in need.
Potvin and a team of six from Design to Market had the two-bedroom apartment all furnished before Johnson and her children fully moved in. She also had a handyman come to fix any issues with the apartment.
"The level of excitement that I and my whole team had to prepare for that day and that moment, I honestly don’t think it could be any more impactful," Potvin told TODAY. "To not only see Ebony's enduring effort through so much adversity, but also what a great mother to raise such incredible children is just amazing."
Johnson was able to secure the apartment through the help of the Cincinnati-based organization Strategies to End Homelessness. The lack of affordable housing and Johnson's specific situation made it an arduous process to try to get her a stable apartment through a shelter diversion program, according to Kevin Finn, the president & CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness.
Much of the federal COVID-19 relief funding is geared toward helping people not get evicted, but Johnson had already been evicted by the time the funding was approved. Also, since she and her children were not on the street or in a shelter and were living "doubled up" with family members, they were not eligible for assistance, according to Finn.
"That is the sort of situation that lots of people find themselves in, and there’s not a lot of assistance for people in those spots," Finn told TODAY. "Shelter diversion programs have not gotten new COVID funding, yet those people in doubled-up situations are most likely to eventually be on the street or entering shelters."
The money used to pay Johnson's rent comes from the organization's program funded by private donors, the city of Cincinnati and the United Way, according to Finn. While it was a heartwarming story for Johnson's family, many others are in similar positions who aren't as fortunate to have someone like Burke help connect them to resources.
"The need is great and unfortunately we’re still not coming close to helping everyone who’s in that situation," Finn said. "There are six Ebony Johnsons who don’t get assistance for every one who does."
Burke is now working on securing a car for Johnson to get to her job at Dunkin' because the new apartment is farther away. Her oldest son, who will be 15 on Thursday, is still living with her brother to be closer to his high school.
Johnson is now happy to get back to serving her customers with a weight off her shoulders.
"I love Dunkin'," she said. "When I get there, I’m happy because it’s my customers who make my day. I say, 'Listen, I’m here to serve y'all and make y'all happy.'"
The family is looking forward to Christmas in their own place.
"Last year we didn't wake up to nothing," Johnson said. "It was depress and stress. This year is going to be good because we're in our home. I get to cook in my own kitchen for my kids."