By KATIE EUBANKS
You never expect somebody’s salvation story to involve a house fire.
John Damon, CEO of Canopy Children’s Solutions in Jackson, describes how he wound up coming to faith in Jesus:
“We were a very tight-knit extended family, 18 of us taking vacations twice a year … When I was 10, my grandfather developed alcoholism. (That) led to my parents divorcing when I was 10.
“My mom (was getting job training), Dad had moved to Texas, and we were at the house with a babysitter when a lamp(shade) caught fire, and our house burned down to the ground.”
All the humans got out in time, but the family lost everything, including an English sheepdog named Pete “that was kind of my anchor through (the divorce),” John says.
However, he soon found the anchor for his soul:
“I’d grown up at First Presbyterian (Church of Jackson), went to First Presbyterian Day School … but I didn’t know Jesus. A man named Uncle Hank, who was an artist who told the gospel story through pastel drawings on flip charts, came and presented to our school … (And) for the first time I realized if I had been the only person on the planet, Jesus would’ve come for me. … all the things I knew in my head got pressed in my heart.”
That wasn’t the first time God provided for John and his wife, Helaina, who joins him for this interview at their home in Madison — and it wouldn’t be the last.
In sixth grade, John left First Pres and attended public school for the first time, at McLeod Elementary in Jackson. “I had no network of friends,” he recalls. But that didn’t last long.
That year, he met Jody Elder, whose family took John under their wing. John, Jody and a few other boys wound up forming a small group that lasted through high school. Four of the five attended Mississippi College together, and they maintain an active group chat to this day.
“We all learned to love Jesus together and to stand up to all the peer pressure not to roll in that way. That group of friends were such a protective factor and catalyst for growth (for me),” John says.
Jody’s dad, who was head of Youth for Christ Jackson at the time, “was instrumental (in my spiritual growth),” John says. “He wouldn’t just give you the answer. He’d get you to search and point you to resources.”
John and Jody “had a great 2-on-2 (basketball) game,” John says, and Jody’s dad took them to “the Boys (& Girls) Club in downtown Jackson darn near every day” in the summer. “We’d be the only two white guys there. We developed some friendships with those guys.
“(We) learned how to not be isolated from the world around you.”
As for his basketball skills, John admits, “Jody by far carried the weight. I could just pass well.”
The honeymoon that didn’t happen
John was supposed to play baseball at Mississippi State University, but his mother was ill. Helaina, born and raised in Bogalusa, Louisiana, started at Louisiana State University but “didn’t much like that,” John says. So, “we both landed at Mississippi College.”
John and Helaina hung out in groups for about a year. Then one night, they met up at the former Ellis Isle Cinema in Jackson to see the dollar movie with mutual friends — but none of those friends came.
Showtime was fast approaching. “And that was before cell phones,” Helaina notes.
John asked if she still wanted to see the movie. She said sure.
“It was ‘Funny Farm,’ with Chevy Chase — which was kind of prophetic (because we’ve had so many animals throughout our marriage),” John says.
“I thought, ‘I would be such a cheapskate if I didn’t pay for the dollar movie.’ So I said, ‘I’ve got it.’ Then I thought, ‘Wait, does that make this a date?’”
After the movie, they went to Shoney’s and split a sundae. (John paid for that too.)
Six years later, during his second year of grad school, they got married in Bogalusa — in March 1993, during the Storm of the Century, an epic winter storm that ravaged the eastern United States. Bogalusa got 18 inches of snow.
“We lost power during the rehearsal dinner, and we came out and had the greatest snowball fight,” John says.
They tried and failed to make it to their honeymoon destination, a cabin in Dahlonega, Georgia.
“Our first night, we got as far as Meridian, and they wouldn’t let us go any further, and our first night was at Budgetel,” Helaina says.
“The breakfast that was included was a pastry hanging on the door,” John says.
The next day, they followed a truck driver to the interstate, and finally reached the driveway to their cabin in Dahlonega around midnight. The driveway sloped downhill.
After making it down the icy driveway, they saw a sign on the cabin door: “Closed due to inclement weather.”
“We’re listening to the radio,” Helaina says, “and there’s all these people that are dying from hypothermia and stuff, getting trapped.”
Against her wishes, John climbed up the hill to a house with one candle in a window, to try and get help. She didn’t want him to leave her, and the house looked like it belonged in a horror movie, she says.
“I was just boo-hooing crying in the car.”
John quips: “It was exactly how I envisioned my honeymoon.”
When he finally returned after nobody answered the door at the horror house, he and Helaina heard a truck — which to them “sounded like a host of angels,” he says. The driver had chains on his tires and pulled their car back up the hill.
“On the way home, just for completion’s sake … we stayed at the Budgetel,” Helaina says. “We kept saying we would go (on a honeymoon) the next year, or the next, but we kept having children.”
Their goal is to visit Iceland for their 30th anniversary in 2023. But they’ve learned to be flexible.
‘She was right’
As he was choosing careers, John wanted to make a difference in children’s lives, as others had done for him.
“I thought I’d do that as a pediatrician. But then through wise counsel from others, I shifted to counseling. I got my bachelor’s and went to Reformed Theological Seminary and got my master’s in marriage and family counseling.”
His number one goal after finishing his master’s?
“To call (Helaina’s) dad and say, ‘I can get a job. I can support your daughter.’”
He even had a job offer. “It was a great job,” he says.
“It wasn’t great,” Helaina counters.
“Well, when you’re in your early 20s and you need a job — it sounded great.”
The job was out of town. Helaina looked through classified ads and found a different job opening, this one in Jackson. She urged John to call.
“I said, ‘No, I’m done with the job interview process. I’m going to call this (other job) and accept it,’” he recalls. “And she had never pulled the ‘God’s telling me something’ card before, but she said, ‘God’s telling me you need to call this number.’
“At that point I just got asinine and cynical. I said, ‘OK, if they can interview me today, I’ll go.’”
He called the number — and interviewed that day for a therapist position, which he got, at the organization now known as Canopy Children’s Solutions. Now 28 years later, he’s the CEO.
“It was where God wanted you. Told you!” Helaina says.
MCL would be remiss if we didn’t include John’s response for the record: “She was right.”
‘Change can happen’
Canopy Children’s Solutions helps kids dealing with autism, behavioral and mental health issues, adoption and foster care, and more. Canopy is a nonsectarian organization, John says, but its first five CEOs were ministers, and the sixth served in church leadership. John and Helaina are active members of Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison.
“We begin each senior meeting (at Canopy) in prayer. In every aspect of every decision, it is about leaning into the wisdom of God,” John says.
Church groups offer Bible studies and worship time at Canopy, and they take any kids to church who want to go.
“We have to keep a very clear line,” he says. “We can’t proselytize or require (kids to attend worship or study the Bible). But that on-ramp is there for every kid (who wants it).”
Behavioral and mental health are challenging issues for anyone, but especially children, whose brains aren’t fully developed. Add the possibility of foster care and/or adoption, and it’s a recipe for trauma. When dealing with a traumatized child, sometimes it’s hard to see change happening.
“You celebrate very small changes,” John says. “‘He’s still cussing, he’s still not doing his homework,’ but maybe a month later, they got their homework done.
“There’s a long narrative of redemption. Just look at Israel,” he says. “Butterflies don’t happen from caterpillars overnight. But our logo is a butterfly because we believe change can happen.”
Early in his career at Canopy, John counseled a girl “who had a difficult history of abuse and had never really been able to talk about it,” he says.
“One day they had a difficult flashback-type moment out on the playground. (We) ended up talking through it, and she worked through it in a beautiful way with her family. There was a lot of healing and restoration.”
The girl had watched the movie “The Dead Poet’s Society,” which featured the Latin phrase “Carpe diem,” or “Seize the day.” For her, that came to mean, “I don’t need to look back and be depressed, and I don’t need to look forward and be anxious — I need to be in the moment,” John says.
When she was discharged from Canopy, she made a wooden sign bearing the words “Carpe diem” and gave it to John, who hung it over the door in his office.
Twenty years later, Canopy moved into a new building on Lakeland Drive. “And we knew we might have a shuffle of office, so I didn’t unpack,” John says. “The only item I unpacked was (her sign). I get choked up talking about this.”
At the time, he’d been walking through a yearlong interview process for the CEO position. He’d loved working directly with kids, but he’d seen that he was able to effect change on a larger level in administrative roles.
“So I’m at lunch with the board president to do the final acceptance (of the CEO job) or not, and someone comes up to the table (and says) ‘What can I get you guys to drink?’ And I look up and it’s (the girl who made the sign).
“She was assistant manager. She was doing awesome. But I hadn’t seen her (in 20 years). (I’d) been praying for affirmation that this (CEO job) was what I’m supposed to do. And here she is.”
John got to tell her that her sign was the only item not in a box in his office — and, that he was about to accept the CEO position.
“God’s been clear, which is really good — ’cause I need clarity,” he says, laughing.
‘Don’t overextend yourself’
In addition to clarity, any believer working hard in their field needs self-care.
Helaina, a home health nurse, says, “Caregiver fatigue is a real thing.” When asked how she avoids burnout, she says, “I just love what I do. It’s filling for me to do my job. I love home health because you get to actually know the person, know their family … ”
“Their extended family … ” John adds with a laugh.
However, “we have learned in our old age, don’t overextend yourself,” Helaina says. “If it’s not joyful, you need to stop.”
For instance, John says, if he hadn’t “backed off of certain things,” he wouldn’t be able to serve on a task force that’s overseeing an investigation of the allegations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.*
“(The investigation is) so important for the survivors and for God’s church,” he says.
Meanwhile, at Canopy, “the issue we try to keep in front of our organization, and me personally — we start every meeting with a mission moment. … The bigger the disconnect between your why and your what, the more fatigue you’re going to have.”
The past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have been tough.
“I’ve had long seasons of not taking care of myself physically, walking, (but) I’m getting back into that and love it,” John says.
In addition, “I’ve found a great help in my small group. And (Helaina and I are) in a small group together.”
John also loves to read and is learning Hebrew, which he calls his “COVID hobby.” Helaina has worked more than normal during COVID but has loved being there for her patients, and while driving to their homes throughout Mississippi, she enjoys listening to podcasts.
At least one good thing has come out of the COVID-19 crisis, John says:
“Those who weren’t sure if mental health was a real thing — we have leapfrogged that stigma by 10 years.”
PBJ and God’s provision
Whether during COVID or otherwise, God has never failed to provide the proverbial ram in the thicket, John says.
When he was a kid, “if y’all needed a hundred dollars to pay some bill, didn’t know how you would pay it, just out of the blue someone would provide the exact amount,” Helaina points out.
Later, when she and John had a family and their wallets were thin, they might make a meal out of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but “the numbers always worked out,” John says.
Through tragedies, accidents, storms and pandemics, one thing has remained the same for the Damons: “God always provides.”
*For more information about the task force and the investigation, visit sataskforce.net.