Upon first glance, the living room of Barb and Glenn Johnson looks like many others here in Summit County - cozy, clean, still decorated with holiday trimmings. A closer inspection, however, reveals the amazing background of this calm, unassuming couple. Baskets woven in all shapes, patterns and sizes adorn the corners and shelves. Next to them are bowls, statues and various other curios gathered from all corners of the world. What's most amazing about these souvenirs isn't that the Johnsons have been in all these places, but what brought them there - volunteer work, 56 missions in all.
Gathered around the dining room table, the two poured out the rich tapestry of memories and anecdotes that have made up the past 50 years of their lives.
The Johnsons began their experience with other cultures and volunteerism during the 1960s while living in the sleepy town of Hemlock, Mich.. Eager for their three children to gain a wider world view they got involved with the International Host program at University of Michigan and Michigan State University. When the universities closed down for the holidays, the Johnsons welcomed international exchange students into their home, offering a glimpse of American family life while learning about other cultures abroad.
The family hosted students from Venezuela, Japan, Okinawa, Saudi Arabia and Iran, among others. They shared Christmas traditions with other religions and insights about ways of life with people from locations very different from the Michigan forests.
Their interest in other cultures did not dampen their enthusiasm for their native country, however, and they worked just as hard to help others around them. When their youngest child was a senior in high school they took in three other foster children, ages 4, 6 and 8. Though this certainly had its difficulties, they still think warmly on their memories of that time.
Once all the children had left the nest, Barb and Glenn took on a new project. Their jobs as teachers, second grade and high school math, respectively, gave them summers free, which they used as an opportunity for more volunteering. They joined Nomad, a Methodist church group that travels the country in RVs to do charity and volunteer work. Each summer they visited two or three locations within the United States and spent three weeks living in their motor home and helping.
One particular memory came from a place in the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, where they helped an 80-year-old woman install running water in her house for the first time.
"So we piped the water in and when she turned on the faucet, she cried," Barb said. "You just can't forget those types of things."
Throughout their American travels, the couple said they learned a lot about the country and the people within it.
"We found that people are wonderful all over, regardless of their culture or background or whatever," Barb said. "If you treat them nicely, it doesn't matter. It does not matter."
"The world around," Glenn added.
"But there are a lot of differences," Barb continued. "There are the haves and the have-nots. There shouldn't be have-nots."
Retiring from teaching in 1993 opened up an entire new realm of possibilities for Barb and Glenn. They became involved with the Volunteers in Mission (VIM) program, again through a Methodist church, and took their volunteering efforts overseas.
Their very first trip was to help restore a 500-year-old Russian Orthodox convent in southwestern Russia. The structure had been used and damaged during World War II and 13 nuns were attempting to restore it. Tension was a bit high in the beginning because the help the nuns had received from other religious groups came with evangelizing, so they were wary of these newcomers.
"Well, we do not go on a mission trip that evangelizes," said Barb sternly. "We feel the best way that you can evangelize is by your actions and your love."
Once the nuns realized that the group was truly there to help and nothing else, "all the walls fell down," Barb said.
The Johnsons have traveled to more than 50 countries and almost all of those for volunteering missions. They've brought medical supplies to Africa, fixed orphanages in Russia, fed poor children in India and built schools and houses in many more. In discussion, they list off countries in Asia, South America and Africa as easily and casually as someone might mention cities they'd visited in Colorado.
Their most recent trip was to Peru in 2010, a location they'd visited three times previously, which they did through the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Dillon.
"I'd like ... to say how wonderful the Lord of the Mountain church is," Barb said. "It's given us the opportunity to do trips in Peru and Haiti. They are the most mission-minded church that we have ever belonged to."
Like most of their volunteering trips, this one required a lot of hard physical work, such as mixing cement and hauling supplies up steep mountainsides. Though they greatly enjoy the relationships they've built there, at nearly 80 years of age, they feel they are not as able to assist with such heavy manual labor enough to make the cost and effort of the trip worthwhile.
The cost of these volunteering missions is extensive, because the Johnsons pay for everything out of their own pockets.
"It's not cheap. None of these have been cheap," Barb said. "You pay for your way over there, you pay for your lodging while you're there and your food, and then you also pay for the materials that you're using."
Though the monetary cost may be high, what the Johnsons have received from these experiences has been invaluable.
"Our thoughts are a lot different," said Glenn, about how his experiences have affected them in day-to-day life.
"From what we have dealt with, we feel we are very blessed," Barb said. "And if I ever complained I would turn around and have him (Glenn) give me a swift kick in the you-know-what, because we have nothing to complain about. We have warmth, we have food."
The Johnsons have also shared their experiences with their grandchildren, taking them with them on volunteer trips to Mexico, Belize and Peru.
"It opened their eyes," Barb said.
Grandchildren were the reason Barb and Glenn moved to Summit County in 2002 - to be closer to them, who are scattered throughout the Denver area.
Barb and Glenn drive up to Denver every Monday, not to see their grandchildren, but to volunteer at the Grant Avenue Street Reach program, where they prepare food and serve it to those in need. Barb estimates they see from 900 to 1,200 people each week.
On Christmas Eve, Street Reach was understaffed for the holidays, so Barb put out a call to the Johnson clan to come and help - and they did.
"Grandma went to them and said, 'Hey, we need your help,'" said Glenn, chuckling.
"I twisted their arm," Barb joked.
The influence of their altruistic parents/grandparents brought six more workers to help on Christmas Eve.
Leading such an unusual, experience-rich life comes easily to Barb and Glenn. They don't cite any one particular person or instance that inspired their extreme volunteerism.
"It just kinda grew on us, that we were gonna go and do it," Glenn said.
Barb agreed, adding, "My feeling was always that, there has to be a real purpose in life. Teaching was great. And our family is number one. But there has to be more than that than just your little circle. And we just started doing it. It just gets contagious."