Happy Johnson is a guy who has defeated the odds. So, in a way, did his late, rusted but beloved ’92 Ford F150 Twilight Blue truck, name of Big Wanda, rescued from a junkyard.
So it’s fitting that these two should headline “The Adventures of Happy and Big Wanda,” a series of children’s books that not only spin whimsical local stories but also have an underlying mission to inspire young people to think about their surroundings and their futures. The most recent, Backyard Bayou, is based on a real-life wetlands waterway that wends its way through the Lower 9th Ward. The next in the series is due out in July.
““Working in the space of disaster response and environmental restoration, we wanted to create something that can get kids excited about going into those fields,” Happy said over coffee at Solo Espresso recently. “The best way to diversify the field and improve it is by focusing on youth education. In all the meetings, the workshops, the trainings that we organize, there is not a lot of focus on either people of color or kids. But how can you be in New Orleans and not think about those two?”
Happy landed in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina, a Georgetown University student on a break, thinking he could make a difference. He became the youngest African-American driver in his disaster relief unit, and went on to create Blanket New Orleans, which donated blankets and supplies to thousands of New Orleanians returning after the storm. That effort grew into the Team Happy Foundation, which has provided volunteers and disaster relief to residents of Haiti, Puerto Rico and areas throughout the U.S. Happy landed on Gambit’s Forty Under 40 list at age 23. A proud resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, he’s also a former White House intern, W.K. Kellogg Fellow, FEMA National Achievement Award finalist and Georgetown graduate.
It’s quite a journey for a kid who started life in a small box apartment at the Ida B. Wells Housing Projects in Chicago, and who went into the foster care system at age 4. The systematic displacement of young people after the storm, Happy says, mirrored the obstacles he faced in foster care.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the Team Happy Foundation mission has become more youth-oriented, with programs designed to get kids, particularly at-risk kids, to think about careers in the environmental sciences and disaster relief.
“We use the multiple lines-of-defense model, an academic framework that combines community preparedness with wetland restoration,” he says. “We marry the two. You can’t do one without the other. We can’t survive without either one of them.”
Those are perhaps heavy concepts for 5-year-olds, so Happy weaves the principles into the stories he tells in his Adventures of Happy and Big Wanda series. In Backyard Bayou, Happy and his Uncle Tureaud take a fishing trip to a local waterway.
“It’s about a youngster in the Lower Nine who lives within walking distance to the bayou. It shows how a youngster looks at a problem, has doubts, and then overcomes,” Happy says. “Everyone can play a role in supporting habitat.”
He writes his children’s stories about things he’s tackling in his day job. “If we can explain it to a child, then we can explain it to an adult. This is about my personal mission statement.”
The backyard bayou of the title is actually Bayou Bienvenue, a real wetland within the city that once housed a vibrant cypress and tupelo swamp.
“I was inspired by going to that bayou and hanging out with the old guys there and hearing their stories,” says Happy. “It’s now depleted, which shows how natural resources are impacted by human intrusion. Bayou Bienvenue was part of my evolution in understanding swamp restoration and storm protection. I wasn’t terribly concerned about our carbon footprint until I started hearing about this.”
The Team Happy Foundation has taken many kids to that bayou for field trips; the organization also started Cypress Tree Clubs… for second-graders, taught students how to prepare disaster kits for hurricane season, delivered his Thinking Resilience lecture series to young adults, and trained several thousand young men for effective re-entry after disaster. The Next 300 is a film and media platform for high-school students, while The Big Wanda Bookmobile delivers free books to 500 kids annually each June 1. Happy’s children’s books will be featured in July when he speaks at the 2019 Emerge Summit and Millennial Awards, sponsored by Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Spears Group.
“I’m about a holistic approach to things,” he says. “I believe in coordination and helping kids become advocates,” he says. “I believe in coordination and turning kids into advocates.”
These days, Happy drives a new truck, a Chevy, one that’s rust-free and has windows that actually roll up. It’s Twilight Blue.
Unlike the first Big Wanda, Bayou Bienvenue perseveres. The catfish still bite and old guys spin yarns about the 30-pound monster they once lifted from its waters. Since the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) was closed, Happy says, salinity levels have decreased. Only the cypress knees peek above the surface.
“The soil is still not back, and there’s lots of technical expertise still needed,” Happy says. “But plans for large scale restoration are in the development phase.”
Perhaps the implementation of those plans will be by kids who have turned the pages of Backyard Bayou.