ENGLEWOOD — To the people who know her, Gwen Johnson is a fighter.
Johnson, known as “Ms. Gwen” around her tight-knit Englewood community, has lived in her modest home with the well-attended garden on 64th and Wood Street for over 50 years. She has weathered its highs and lows, never failing to lend a hand, a hug or a meal to those in need.
Now, as she fights for her life, her community is rallying around her.
Her colleagues at the I Grow Chicago nonprofit took to Facebook to ask people to take a few minutes of silence at 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon to send love to the beloved neighborhood matriarch.
Johnson, who is in her 80s, contracted COVID-19 over a week ago, and was admitted to St. Bernard Hospital before being transferred to Rush University Medical Center, where she remains on a ventilator.
Monday, things took a turn for the worse. She developed a secondary infection and her lungs weren’t responding to treatment.
The coronavirus has hit the Southwest Side neighborhood hard, now at 188 confirmed cases.
Still, her I Grow Chicago family remains hopeful.
“She’s been part of our work from the very beginning,” said Zelda Mayer, director of development for the Southwest Side nonprofit. “She came to us because she loves flowers. She saw that we were turning two big lots into a garden, and she wanted to be a part of it.”
Soon she would take on a bigger role, co-founding a women’s group to help mothers focus on self-care. For many of her neighbors, she is the first call when they are in need of help. When elderly neighbors on the block were forced to use stoves after losing their heat during last winter’s polar vortex, she connected them with I Grow Chicago so that they could get permanent housing, as high levels of carbon monoxide had rendered their homes uninhabitable.
“We have no idea what would’ve happened had Ms. Gwen not stepped in and made sure they got support,” said Mayer. “That’s just who she is. For the past few years she’s called us daily to tell us what’s going on in the community, and who needs support.”
An I Grow Chicago board member, Johnson also co-founded a walking club for senior residents to help them stay active, and the organization’s Wisdom Council of Community Elders, who serve as mediators and peace keepers.
And when the organization was forced to end its in-person programming, the octogenarian spent a day learning how to use Zoom to set up conference calls, creating a virtual prayer circle to keep neighbors connected.
“She’s truly a community activist in every way,” said Mayer.
When Block Club interviewed her last summer at the groundbreaking of I Grow Chicago’s community play lot, she said she felt “blessed” to witness the rebirth of the place she calls home.
“Seeing the neighborhood fall down and somebody else was coming in to pick it up, I had to come on in,” she said.
Mayer said once she recovers and it’s safe to give hugs and kisses, the I Grow family plans to give Ms. Gwen all the love she can stand.
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