Over the last 30-plus years, Jane Johnston has seen it all at El Nido Family Centers.
The longtime Santa Monica resident has facilitated growth and change in a nonprofit organization that now provides services to some 10,000 people in Los Angeles County every year, more than 10 times the number it was serving when she started. She has been around to advise four executive directors, bringing institutional memory to an agency that was founded more than 90 years ago.
But for Johnston, it isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the difference she’s made in the lives of countless needy citizens through her vision, program design and fundraising skills.
The organization will recognize her Sept. 24 during its second-annual Garden Gala at Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills, where she will receive a Community Impact Award.
“It’s just such an honor,” she said. “I’m so humbled by it. … It’s been a real team effort. I have consulted with a lot of other organizations, and El Nido is unique in that everything is a team effort. There are no giant egos.”
Johnston has made it her personal goal to buoy El Nido, whose services combat poverty, child abuse, domestic violence, academic failure and teen pregnancy. She has written successful grant proposals, designed data-driven programs based on input and evaluated the efficacy of the organization’s work, among numerous other endeavors.
“Jane has been a constant, consistent and constructive force,” El Nido executive director Liz Herrera said in a statement. “Brilliant and dedicated, she has counseled and guided me and three previous executive directors wisely on a sweeping variety of functions essential to our success. She truly has been and is a vital member of our El Nido family.”
Originally from New Orleans, Johnston attended Wellesley College near Boston and was interested in pursuing a law career. But she didn’t know exactly how to proceed when she finished college, which led her sister to steer her towards a job in Los Angeles with the local Center for Law in the Public Interest.
That opportunity spawned a long career in the nonprofit sector. She met her now-deceased husband while working on a delinquency prevention project with the City of Los Angeles, and she set up her own consulting practice to assist area nonprofits. She started working as an advisor to El Nido in 1982.
“They brought me on to help them expand their capacity,” Johnston said, noting the residential shelters that the organization sold to provide more widespread care. “They wanted to be able to go into more communities.”
Johnston recalled that the teen birth crisis was peaking when she started with El Nido, which launched a pilot program at Jordan High School in Los Angeles to keep pregnant mothers from dropping out of school. The program was later adopted and expanded beyond Southern California.
Another time, Johnston designed an elaborate survey for teen mothers. The results led El Nido to develop programs specifically for parents of children ages 3 and under.
Johnston has also delivered services for El Nido and other agencies in Santa Monica, where she has lived since 1978. For at least a decade, the nonprofit offered a school-based program at Will Rogers and Edison elementary schools. In the early 1990s, she worked with the City of Santa Monica on a needs-assessment report that served as the foundation for future programming. Her daughter, Samantha, graduated from Santa Monica High School in 2005.
The upcoming gala will feature a display of photographs from Santa Monica beaches that were taken by youths through an El Nido program.
“Some of these kids had never been to the beach,” she said. “[The instructor] had to hold their camera equipment while they splashed around in the ocean — it was so novel to them.
“Something like a photography class can change their life. They start to see that people care about their vision. … It gave them purpose and identity.”