Angela Johnson and her husband, William, who are an Army Silver Star family, endured a soul-crushing experience when their son Andrew was arrested in California. While undergoing the stress of helping their son, the Johnsons bought an abandoned early 20th-century home and renovated it into Valor Village where veterans and their families who are dealing with the legal or prison systems can stay free of charge.
Their son “Drew,” who is 32, is a service-disabled veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Drew, who served with army special operations, had been living and taking care of a military friend in San Jose, California. His friend, Ignacio Arriaga, is a quadriplegic who was injured in a vehicle rollover in Afghanistan.
Two men attempted to rob Drew while he was going to the store for himself and his friend. The attackers threatened him with a knife. Drew, who was armed, fired a warning shot near the attackers, who were undeterred. To protect himself, Drew shot at the attackers’ legs, slightly injuring them.
After Drew was arrested, his parents traveled back and forth from their home in Northern Virginia, to support him while he was imprisoned and obtain proper legal representation.
This amounted to several trips over three-and-a-half years, flying about 3,000 miles to await several preliminary court dates and finally a trial. Drew served that time as a pretrial detainee, because his family could not afford his $2 million bail.
While visiting Hampton Roads to check on a family rental in Newport News, Virginia, Angela would walk along Chesapeake Avenue, which faces a body of water, and pray for a blessing to strengthen her heart to fight through the catastrophe her family faced.
The body of water she was walking along is where the mouth of the James River joins the end of Chesapeake Bay, just before the currents flow into the Atlantic Ocean.
Her walks took her past a 4,200 square-foot, three-level brick house that sits up high on the corner of Chesapeake and Park Avenues. The large Federal-style house, which was built in 1910, had been abandoned for at least seven years.
“I saw the house and it just laid on my heart to claim the house, but I didn’t know why,” Angela said. When the house went up on auction, she entered a bid and won.
“When I opened the door, I knew what the house was for because it was set up for families,” Angela said, with five bedrooms, four and a half bathrooms and a basement.
The focus then shifted to making the home livable again. Her husband, William, who is an engineer, helped with the renovations and supported Angela every step of the way. They had plumbing to redo, fire damage to repair and rewiring for lighting and appliances. The walls are plaster so they sought out a craftsman who could repair them.
Inside, everything was bigger and grander than they could imagine. They decided to dedicate each bedroom to a branch of the armed services and created a Buffalo Soldiers Room. For the last two years, Angela was always hunting for antiques that were appropriate for the style of the home and military memorabilia.
“I would just look for any connections to the veterans and get them,” she explained. “What I would do was go to consignment shops throughout the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area.”
Her search included model home sales and estate auctions. Occasionally, her husband added, furniture and other items would disappear from the couple’s home and end up at Valor Village. Angela also asked artists to donate art for the home.
“Each time I would go out to look for furniture, the actual hunt for the pieces was restorative to me,” Angela explained, “because I, too, suffer from PTSD and I was in therapy. It was just healing to know that I was working toward this mission.”
The Johnsons continued to support their son, and their struggle ended in February 2018 when Drew received a not guilty verdict. Drew has filed a suit against the County of Santa Clara and City of San Jose for violation of his civil rights. The case is still awaiting a court date.
Now, the couple has fully restored Valor Village and is celebrating its official opening over the long Fourth of July Weekend. Guests stay free-of-charge at the home where they can receive respite self-care, educational resources and access to a compassionate support staff of justice advocates.
The home is intended to support the families of veterans in the Hampton Roads area who are involved with the court and prison systems. Valor Village seeks to serve veterans and their families who face financial instability by providing an emotional safe place to stay. A “Justice STAYtion,” Valor Village also serves veterans by educating their families and advocating for the expansion of veteran treatment courts.
Valor Village Foundation Inc. is a non-profit organization with a website and a GoFundMe page that accepts contributions. However, Angela doesn’t want people to feel that only financial support is important.
One thing she wants is to see people advocating for the expansion of justice treatment courts. For veterans involved in non-violent crimes, they should be given alternatives, as opposed to being “caged,” she said.
She discussed the need for more people to support criminal justice legislation. If there is someone who has a loved one who is imprisoned and they haven’t been able to visit that person, be sure to be there for them — “creating those strong bonds and helping them to make a better transition once they are released,” she said. Furthermore, loved ones can help connect veterans in the legal system to their entitled benefits.
“We heard a lot that ‘hurt people hurt people,’ but I just want to illuminate the fact that hurt people help people,” Angela said. “We do have to believe in that so we can lessen helplessness and hopelessness and give these veterans the hope and support that they do deserve.”
Edwin B. Lake is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
hamptonroads.mp4 from Noelle Johnson on Vimeo.