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Labor of love brings smiles to Oakland school children's faces

Oakland cancer survivor's labor of love brings back-to-school joy
Oakland cancer survivor's labor of love brings back-to-school joy 03:28

OAKLAND --  It's a labor of love and back-to-school tradition for cancer survivor Dee Johnson. Every year, she brings smiles to the faces of Oakland school children during her annual backpack giveaway

Johnson has given away more than 133,000 backpacks to low-income public school children in Oakland and Alameda County over the last quarter century.

"It's just unbelievable," she said as she looked at a sea of smiling faces during this year's giveaway at Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School.

The foster mother co-founded the Lend A Hand Foundation in 1997.

 "In 1996, I developed lung cancer, so I survived, and it meant my work was not done," Johnson told KPIX. "There was something else I needed to do." 

 Lend A Hand grew from distributing 200 free backpacks in 1997 to almost 10,000 last year.

And this fall, volunteers are helping to pack a whopping 25,000 backpacks in honor of its 25th anniversary of equipping underserved kids for learning.

"Having those tools will build confidence, will allow you to know that you're just as important as others and you can also succeed," Johnson said.

 She doesn't just extend a hand in school readiness. Johnson also gave out tens of thousands of food bags during the COVID pandemic, awarded scholarships and presented life skills workshops.

And the holiday wishes she fulfills open her eyes to the extent of poverty in the community.

 "So it just really touches your heart, the stories," she said. "Last year, we were at the Coliseum and a child said they wanted a blanket. They didn't have a blanket."

And when her heart is heavy, Johnson reaches for her inspiration.

"I lost my Mom in 2017, actually we were both diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time, and even though she was going through that, she told me, 'Keep on fighting,' keep on doing what I'm doing,'" Johnson explained.         

 And her perseverance has paid off.

 "Money wasn't always available, but for some reason, I believe by the grace of God, that something happened," she said. "A door opened, even though a door was closed."

Doors keep opening. As the need grows, sponsors step up. With more support, she can keep dreaming.

 "I wish that Lend a Hand could build some tiny homes," Johnson said. "I wish we had this big warehouse where families could come on a regular basis and get what they need. That's what it means to me."

 She'll keep lending a hand to bring smiles beyond backpacks.

  Lend A Hand will host its annual fundraiser is Friday night September 23 at Scott's Seafood Restaurant on Jack London Square.

  Funds will pay for backpacks and supplies, and any money left over will go toward a warehouse in hopes of starting a resource center.

 For more information on how to donate or volunteer reach out at

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