WILMINGTON, Del. — LaDaye “Cooley” Johnson doesn’t see himself as a boss.

Though he runs his own nonprofit, Cool Shoes Inc., Johnson isn’t someone who lets others do the daily grind work.

Instead, he shows up and stays – to show kids in his East Side neighborhood the value of hard work and of giving back to a place that raised them.

Johnson grew up in a single-parent household, his mother doing the best she could. But Johnson credits the older men around him in Wilmington who steered him straight when he didn’t want to follow the right path.

That path eventually led him to attending college and becoming a community leader who now commands a local nonprofit that donates food, toys and other items to more than 1,000 families regularly throughout the year.

To the people in Wilmington’s East Side neighborhood though, Johnson is just “Cooley,” a man who refuses to give up on them and is determined to get his people the resources they need to thrive.

“These people made me who I am,” he said. “I’m not going to go nowhere else and get to know people that didn’t make you who you are.”

While the community centers of his youth are gone and some of the people gone too, Johnson knows the streets and sidewalks of Wilmington’s East Side neighborhood like the back of his hand.

When Johnson was 14, he got caught in the middle of the drugs and violence his East Side neighborhood was known for and was shot on the other side of town. It took him 90 days to recover from the shooting and afterward, he decided to drop out of high school.

His mentors never gave up on him though. Johnson eventually went on to get a degree in criminal justice from Lincoln University in 2011.

A year before he graduated college, he came back to his neighborhood and saw the state of things.

“This young generation, they don’t know how to not separate themselves,” Johnson said. “They think being a follower is the best thing, which it’s not. They don’t know how to be different.”

He said he wanted to give back to his community by helping the people he felt were the most disadvantaged: the youth.

What started as one event in 2010 became an annual Easter egg hunt, a summer camp, Thanksgiving turkey giveaways, and book bag giveaways and toy drives that bring smiles to neighborhood children every year.

Johnson shares his story of redemption with area kids all the time. Not as a point of pride, he said, but as both a warning and an inspiration. But he also understands the limitations put on the youth in his neighborhood.

That’s why Johnson is working hard to get a community center opened up on the East Side.

If kids were given an outlet for their cries for attention, as well as guidance and support, there would be less violence and more opportunities for their lives, Johnson said.

He knows he will have to start small but is hoping to get support soon to start that project.

“I’m gonna stay home and we’re gonna fight this battle,” he said.

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