TOTT: Yesterday and Today

When Faye Johnson's husband was arrested for molesting their children, this traditional portrait of a middle class family was shattered. Though he was sent to prison to serve time, the damage was done. Faye's children suffered, as many children in such situations, for years as they struggled to put their lives back together. Her son was out of control. He spent time, repeatedly, in Fresno County Juvenile Hall. Now, as a single parent, Faye had to keep her children - and herself - together.

By the mid to late 1980's, the worst of the terror was over. Faye felt drawn back to juvenile hall, searching for a way to help kids who, in many ways, were much like her son was just a few years before. She volunteered in several capacities at the hall, helping to process new arrivals and assisting in the neverending paperwork. At the same time, she became aware of the potential of personal computers, and the existance of bulletin board systems, linking distant users together in an electronic community. By 1986, with the help of local computer hobbyists, she began to create the Turn On To Teens organization. The first TOTT bulletin board system was based on a modest Commodore 64 computer. The floppy-disk based system by necessity wasn't very extensive, but it provided the basic messaging capabilities that are still the heart of TOTT. Shortly after establishing the BBS, Faye convinced Fresno County Juvenile Hall to give her program a try. 

TOTT was largely volunteer-run, though in recent years community support allowed the organization to hire a part time assistant director. Faye had a full-time job, as do many volunteers, yet the organization managed to grow over the years, and today boasts an advisory board consisting of many of the most recognizable names in child welfare in the Fresno area.

Though TOTT always existed on a very modest budget, with funds raised through a combination of private grants and grass-roots fundraising. it inspired satellite programs in several areas across the United States and in Canada, and numerous bulletin board systems carry several TOTT discussion areas over the "Fidonet" network, allowing for individuals across the nation to participate in TOTT.

TOTT  presented an annual "Good Sam" award to those individuals who contribute to the community unselfishly and without thought of any personal recognition. The award was named in memory of Wishy Washy, a retired Marine who was one of TOTT's most loyal volunteers.  For several years, he called the TOTT system every day, greeting new participants in the program, and drawing them into challenging correspondance. His no-nonsense approach won him the respect of volunteers and juvenile hall residents alike.

TOTT's activities extended beyond posting messages on the BBS. The organization was invovled in an adopt-a-school program, sometimes presents low cost community seminars on parent-child issues, and  published a monthly newsletter featuring writing from TOTT participants and volunteers. In addition, participants at juvenile hall were engaged in improvisation and acting exercises while others are on the computer.

At Fresno County Juvenile Hall, Faye and her team of volunteers visited three nights a week, working with the selected TOTTlers for two hours in a hall classroom. Particpants were either recommended by counselors, or asked on their own accord, having heard of the program from others in their unit. TOTT didn't expect to change lives, but to give particpants the basic tools to take responsiblity for their lives.

The crying isn't mourning,
it's the happiness I've found
To love and sing and smile
With my feet here on the ground
(Small Fry)

Sadly, TOTT, which changed it's name a few years ago to "Teen Outreach Through Technology," ceased operations in 2002, partly as a consequence of funding shortfalls. In the faltering economy of the post 9-11 world, TOTT, like so many small non-profit organizations, simply couldn't compete.

I believe that the contributions that Faye Johnson and the TOTT organizaiton made in the lives of countless teenagers will be felt for a long time. While it's impossible to measure lives saved, crimes not committed, and citizens not victimized, the legacy is still felt by former volunteers and program participants.  That legacy brought me to Las Vegas in October of 2002, to watch an individual perform at a local Renaissance Faire...a former TOTT participant whose online name was...Small Fry. 

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