Out Of The Box

Danay Johnson is a whirlwind of energy

When Keith Johnson of Cleveland Heights checked in to the Golden Temple Villa Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2007, he had no idea that his life was about to change, nor did the manager of the boutique hotel, Danay Sopheakkdey. Two years later, Danay and Keith got married in a traditional Cambodian ceremony, and she moved to Cleveland Heights.

“When you come here, you start from the beginning, like a baby,” said Danay Johnson. “You don’t know about the simple things.” It took two years for her to improve her English and begin to feel comfortable living in America.

Johnson was born in a village in Kampong Cham province, Cambodia. When she was six years old her parents divorced and her father left the family of five to fend for themselves. Both of her parents’ families suffered losses during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Her father served in the military and her mother suffered from depression and PTSD from the war years. Initially, her two older siblings supported the family, but at the age of 16 she had to stop her education and find work to support her mother and two younger siblings. She often worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day, to earn enough money.

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Volume 8, Issue 11, Posted 6:20 PM, 10.29.2015

Coming to America 1969

If you drive down Lee Road past Fairfax Elementary School in the summer, you are likely to see Sarojini Rao busy working in the community at the school, where she is the leader. Rao was born in a small town in South India called Udipi. Her father left service in the Indian army after World War II and was given an amount of money that he used to purchase four acres of land in Bangalore in Karnataka State. An engineer by profession, he loved to garden and spent much of his spare time growing things. Rao attributes her love of gardening to her father’s influence.

When Rao was 21, her mother “sent out feelers” to find a husband for her. Eventually, her parents arranged for her to marry the son of a couple who were part of their community. Sridhar Rao was a post-doc in the physics department at Case Western Reserve University. They married in 1969 and the couple moved to an apartment in Cleveland's Little Italy. Rao describes feeling very excited at the idea of moving to America, and her mother, she said, “Strutted around town telling people that her daughter was going to America.”

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Volume 8, Issue 10, Posted 1:18 PM, 09.30.2015

Zen and the craft of teaching

When Susan Rakow was a 19-year-old college student in Buffalo, in 1968, she attended a lecture that changed the direction of her life. Rakow, with hundreds of other students, heard Roshi Philip Kapleau, of the Rochester Zen Center, speak on Zen Buddhism. When he walked onto the stage, she thought, “I want what he has.” She saw a calm strength and equanimity in all he did, and that made a profound impression on her. Rakow had been seeking answers to religious questions and, for the first time, glimpsed an answer. The practice of Zen did not provide a set of beliefs but a way of being in the world.

When Rakow and her new husband, Larry, moved to Cleveland in 1971, they became part of a small Zen group in Cleveland Heights. In 1974, they moved to Geneva, Ohio, as part of a back-to-the-land experiment that lasted for two years. Both realized they were more accustomed to urban living and returned to Cleveland Heights, where they have remained since.

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Volume 8, Issue 9, Posted 2:08 PM, 08.31.2015

Coming "home" to make things happen

Deidre McPherson is finally back where she belongs—in Cleveland Heights, where she joins other young adults who have “boomeranged” back to the place where they grew up. 

McPherson graduated from Cleveland Heights High School in 1995, and attended Miami University on a violin scholarship, initially majoring in zoology and violin performance. She soon realized she much preferred marketing to zoology and decided against becoming a doctor like her father.  

After graduation she lived in Boston and then Washington, D.C., where she obtained a master’s degree in business administration with a focus in marketing from the University of Maryland.

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Volume 8, Issue 8, Posted 11:40 AM, 07.31.2015

Longtime resident leads community garden with wisdom and love

Phyllis Thomas is in charge of the 81-year-old Oxford Community Garden located next to the Oxford Elementary School in Cleveland Heights. It’s obvious why her predecessor chose her for the job. She is a straightforward woman who elicits respect through her warm and loving, no-nonsense approach to life and problems.

As the leader of the disparate group of gardeners, Thomas is tasked with enforcing the garden rules, recruiting gardeners, allocating plots and maintaining peace and communication among the gardeners.

“Oh, my goodness, if you had been here yesterday [when Tom Gibson and Elsa Johnson conducted a permaculture class] you would have seen all the different cultures and ages of people. Refugees from Nepal, a Vietnamese woman, blacks, a Russian woman, white people, about 30 people in total. I was so proud to see everyone together. We try to work together, sometimes we have problems communicating, but I love this garden,” she said.

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Volume 8, Issue 7, Posted 1:52 PM, 06.29.2015

Jason Eugene-Boardé

When my friend Joan told me about Burnt Toast Farms & Studio, we both thought the name had to have some hip meaning that eluded us simply because we were too old. Founder Jason Eugene-Boardé laughed out loud at this suggestion, explaining that he chose the name after reading an article about what to do with burnt toast, thinking it would make a good name for his farm and creative community space.

The name is an apt symbol for what Boardé values—using what he has no matter how humble—such as planting on the roof of the garage, in gutters attached to the wooden fence, in pallets attached to the walls of the house, and growing vegetables and flowers on what was the front lawn. Burnt Toast Farm is also a tango studio, a Sunday brunch venue and a place where you can learn to make a broom. Burnt Toast Farm, located at 2972 Yorkshire Road, is a typical Cleveland Heights home on a typical Cleveland Heights street, occupied by a very unusual person, who really lives “out of the box.”

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Volume 8, Issue 6, Posted 8:36 AM, 05.29.2015