Mary Johnson Helps Important People Succeed

by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus 

In 2008, Mary Johnson began a journey to enrich the lives of girls in Grand Rapids with a faith-based summer day camp called Helping Important People Succeed (H.I.P.S.). The eight-week-long program is thoughtfully designed to provide girls ages 11-17 with the tools to grow into independent, successful and happy young women. The program is free for participants, which, Johnson notes, allows them to welcome anyone who is willing to commit to the program. 

“All kids need to have privilege,” she said. “We are giving kids all the same privilege and resources to be successful.”

Girls in the program learn a vast array of skills, from loving yourself to budgeting. They explore different values like leadership, integrity and equality and embark on educational field trips. During workshops, which are held at Messiah Missionary Baptists Church, girls are prompted to explore “seven necessary elements of self-development: education, empowerment, etiquette, leadership, self-esteem, outer and inner beauty and celebrating self-accomplishments.”

Each year, H.I.P.S. has a theme around which the programming is designed. Last year’s theme was, “Living Your Life Like It’s Golden.” This year, the theme is “Love.”

Johnson notes that while the program aims to provide the girls with a foundation of faith, they are encouraged to engage with their spirituality and what it means in their lives, as opposed to being indoctrinated with the views of others.

“You have to keep it real,” Johnson said. “You have to keep it real with the kids.”

H.I.P.S. kicks off on June 30 and ends on September 28 in a grand finale, which is kept secret from participants until the day of. In 2018, the camp concluded with a decadent lunch at the Amway Grand Plaza during which the girls enjoyed a keynote by Dr. Debbye Turner, the third African American woman to be crowned Miss America.

Johnson is a clinical social worker and spent years working with at-risk youth in the Grand Rapids Public School system. She found she was able to help her students become successful through encouragement, love and support. 

“You don’t need to have an iron whip,” she said. “You need to set expectations with them, and they will meet them.” 

“This will enrich their lives with confidence, self-esteem, social skills — it is such a rich experience.”

— Tamara Spears, mother of H.I.P.S. participants

She employs this same philosophy with H.I.P.S., encouraging participants to treat themselves as outstanding members of society; the girls are even referred to as “ambassadors” and are treated by H.I.P.S. staff and volunteers as role models in the community.

Johnson notes that the program has been successful in part due to generous endorsements by the Rev. Dr. Timothy Harris from Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, Pastor Daniel Smith from Messiah Baptist Community (M.B.C.) Church and the now-deceased Dr. Clifton Rhodes, Sr., of M.B.C., whose support of the H.I.P.S. elevated it within the communities it serves. 

Tamara Spears enrolled both of her daughters in the camp last year.

“I wanted them to be in a program where they could see individuals striving for success — people who care about them and who they want to emulate,” Spears said. 

Both of her daughters enjoyed H.I.P.S. immensely. She notes that her oldest daughter, in particular, was allowed to be a leader.

“It helped her become more self-aware and confident,” Spears expressed.

Spears encourages anyone to enroll their children in the program.

“This will enrich their lives with confidence, self-esteem, social skills — it is such a rich experience,” she said. “Mary has a heart for the children. She is genuine, nurturing and compassionate, and they know that.”

Mya Jennings is 18-years-old and began participating in H.I.P.S. three years ago. Like Spears’ daughters, Jenning says the program gave her something invaluable: self-worth.

“Something I’ve learned at H.I.P.S. is that if you love yourself, you will be able to live in society in a positive way, which is so great because there is a lot of negativity these days,” she said. 

To donate to H.I.P.S. or learn more about the program, please visit grhips.org.


When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, taking photos, listening to live music and spinning records.

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