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Generation Z Holiday Inspiration – An Interview with 4 ‘Digital Natives’

Service may not just be in their blood; it might be their birthdays!

The year 2020 and COVID-19 will never be forgotten. From the devastation of those who have lost someone, to the frustration and loneliness of being confined. I had the good fortune, during COVID-19, not only to serve at the Buffalo Dream Center, but also to closely observe the nephews and sons of Pastor Johns, who I have written about before. To me, this family continues to inspire, especially during these unprecedented times. It is my hope, that these stories help to inspire others to rise up, to help others in need.

This holiday season, my story about the Buffalo Dream Center and the Johns family centers around four adolescent boys, that have already offered up their lives to serving others through the foundation of caring. It’s as simple as that – teenagers ready to serve the most destitute families in Buffalo – a snapshot of 4 “digital natives” – or Generation Zers – who hope to inspire others in their age group to step up to serve others that are less fortunate. As for these 4 Johns teens, they have literally been living on the streets with the homeless, while raising funds to support the Dream Center’s Boxes of Love program.

Earlier this week, I got a chance to talk to Alex Johns, 17, Nathan Johns, 16, Thomas Rutherford, 15, and Jackson Rutherford, 13, who were born into a family of service and ministry, established long before they all were born. Together, the Johns and their troupe have served 18,000 families since the beginning of COVID. Here’s the breakdown:

  • “Boxes of Love” – 2,400 Buffalo families received food
  • 1,100 Buffalo families received toys
  • 3,300 toys were given to Buffalo’s children and over 300 homeless and senior citizens received a Christmas dinner

I sat down with the remarkable young men and asked them a few questions:

How was your time on the streets with your Dad?

Alex Johns: Growing up, I remember my father would always leave at Thanksgiving time. I always asked him, ‘May I go,’ but I was still too young. Finally, I got to go through this experience. Spending a week in another man’s shoes and learning their stories is something I love, and to be with my Dad was awesome!

What was the most difficult thing about staying on the street?

Alex: Staying on the streets is difficult in every aspect, but I would say finding a warm place to sit during the day is very hard!

What was the most positive thing about staying on the street?

Alex: You get to experience a lot. Learning how not every person is homeless because of addictions, but other things they cannot control. I met one man on the street who is homeless because he lost his job due COVID-19, so not all are homeless because of addiction.

What is the best thing about helping people?

Alex: Their smiles.

What are your future goals?

Alex: Full-time ministry is my goal; I would like to be a missionary in Honduras.

What’s a good takeaway?

Tommy Rutherford: I really enjoyed staying on the streets for a week with my uncle. Even though this was not the focus of our week, I always have a great time with my uncle and my cousins, and it’s amazing working together with them to win souls.

Was there anything that you found difficult?

Tommy: I would have to say the most difficult thing about staying on the streets was staying warm and walking around. We walked almost ten miles every single day and it got pretty tiring after a while.

What’s the message?

Tommy: I know that a lot of my generation are unaware (about this sort of thing) because of the things going on around them – there are so many distractions in life, such as video games and social media. I just want them to know that there are things that we can all do to change the lives and hearts of others in Buffalo (our city) – I do not plan on stopping anytime soon.

What’s your favorite thing about helping?

Tommy:  The best thing about helping people is getting to see the smiles on their faces when they receive bags of groceries, or the prayer for loved ones.

What was tough about the experience?

Nate Johns: We could not sit down and eat in many soup kitchens because of COVID-19. But we still had opportunities to talk and pray with people on the street.

What’s something that sticks with you?

Nate: The most difficult thing is living without some of the normal luxuries, such as sleeping in a bed, eating home cooked meals, and staying warm.

And something positive?

Nate: The most positive thing about staying on the street is getting to know more about some of the people on the street and hearing their stories. Just seeing the joy on their faces when you’re able to give them what they need. I want to continue to keep on helping people however I can. I also plan on taking over the homeless ministry with my brother and cousins.

What was difficult in your eyes?

Jackson Rutherford: The most difficult thing? Seeing how many people are actually homeless. Also, sleeping outside under the bridge.

And positive?

Jackson: The most positive thing was to be able to pray for people in need. I enjoy seeing how people get so happy because they are finally getting hope.

Visit the Dream Center online to learn more about undertakings of the organization, and the inspiring ‘Digital Natives’ that have set out to make a difference in our community.

Written by Mark Lazzara

Mark Lazzara

I have a passion for helping my fellow Western New Yorkers and advance the great things that are going on in this region. Buffalo Rising is a great booster and it’s a blast writing and contributing to BR about positive happenings in our neck of the woods. I appreciate the help I’ve received over the years from organizations and people who share my passion and supported me in efforts that put thousands of people to work and resulted in a community give back of more than $115M to Buffalo’s neediest during my days at the helm of AmeriCorps.

I’m especially grateful for the opportunities that enabled me to help cities devastated by Hurricane Katrina and rebuild more than 700 family homes that were destroyed. Back at home, I was able to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience as a coordinator for ABC’s Extreme Makeover Home Edition where we were able to repair, beautify and upgrade homes for an entire neighborhood on Buffalo’s Westside. Other projects close to my heart include a collaboration with Sail Buffalo to build the Cazenovia Boating Center at Buffalo’s Outer Harbor, and my annual Christmas season time is spent at Buffalo’s treasure, the Broadway Market, playing Santa Clause.

In my other life, I am a workforce development, business, marketing, public relations and fundraising professional. Earned a M.S. Human Service Management from Buffalo State, and enjoy my family life that includes four amazing grandchildren!

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