Utah businessman didn't hesitate to help Haiti
Patricia Sheffield wasn't a bit surprised when she heard St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson was leading a relief mission to help children after an earthquake decimated Haiti.
Over and over, Johnson has come to the aid of those in crisis -- from Washington County residents who lost homes in a flood to teens fleeing one of southern Utah's polygamous communities.
"Jeremy is one of the most unsung heroes I believe we have in this country," Sheffield said. "He does so much good quietly that people do not know the impact that he makes. His heart is huge."
So Johnson, known to fly below the radar to get a job done, didn't hesitate to act after seeing what had happened in Haiti.
Teaming with the Wade Family Foundation, Johnson used his corporate jet to ferry Utah doctors and supplies to Florida. There, he purchased three helicopters to transport them to Jimani, located at the border in the Dominican Republic. The group, now working as Utah Haiti Relief, is set up in a makeshift camp in a baseball field and is focused on the plight of orphans. They are using Johnson's helicopters to quicken deliveries of food and supplies and provide transportation.
On Friday those helicopters took 21 children from an orphanage to Port-au-Prince, where a chartered jet then flew them to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to be united with families who had long ago begun the process of adopting them. More evacuations may come.
The success, though, comes after some heartbreak for the group.
Johnson, 34, arrived at one orphanage with food and other supplies too late to save a 7-year-old girl, who had died a day earlier of starvation.
"I missed her by one day," he said in a press release issued by Utah Haiti Relief.
Kerry Johnson, Jeremy's father, said his oldest son has seen "horrendous, horrific things" since traveling to Haiti. Kerry Johnson and his wife Barbara left Utah on Friday to join their son, bringing more supplies, hand-made quilts and extra hands to pitch in.
Johnson grew up in St. George and Santa Clara.
"He was always running lemonade stands or selling newspapers and making money and giving it away to people," Kerry Johnson said. After graduating from high school, Johnson served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day-Saints in Independence, Mo.
Kerry Johnson said his son briefly tried college and then opted out to start a stucco business. That led to other ventures, including his most successful effort -- IWorks Inc., an Internet marketing company that has made Johnson a millionaire.
"I am a person who has been blessed," Johnson told The Associated Press this week after arriving at the camp following a long day of visiting isolated communities on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. "To sit back and relax and send a little money or whatever, it just made me feel ungrateful."
But Johnson's maverick approach has at times attracted scrutiny.
In 2006, the Utah Department of Commerce cited IWorks Inc. for making misleading claims, but later dismissed the case against the company. The Better Business Bureau of Utah has received 31 complaints about IWorks, mostly regarding billing and collections practices, and gives it an "F" rating. All but one complaint has been resolved, according to the BBB.
The FAA investigated and then cleared Johnson, a licensed helicopter pilot, of wrong-doing in connection with rescue flights he made during the 2005 Santa Clara River flood in Washington County, including a daring mission that brought a family to safety as flood waters rose around their home.
Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith said Johnson was heroic during the flood.
"He was just everywhere," Smith said. "There were some families who didn't want to evacuate so he flew food into them. He was just out there helping people, that is just the way he is."
The county has called on Johnson's help as a pilot during countless search and rescue efforts; he's also helped the sheriff's office scour surrounding valleys for illegal marijuana growing operations.
"You can't put a value on it, all he's done for us," Smith said. "He does a lot of stuff that all of us, if we had the money, would like to do. He's just very, very generous."
Sheffield said Johnson stepped in with the final sums needed to secure a matching grant to build the county's Children's Justice Center.
"He doesn't ask for accolades and usually tries to shy away from them because he does what he does because that is who he is," she said.
Several years ago Johnson, who is married and a father of two young children, offered use of a home he owns for teens who'd left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous sect based in southern Utah. He has given others jobs at his company.
"He is a very giving and caring and compassionate individual and he is an individual who, if he cares about something, will do whatever is in his power [to help,]" said Shannon Price, director of the Diversity Foundation, a nonprofit that works with FLDS teens. "He wants to do good in the world."