Storyteller Series: Mental Health Awareness – Dawn Marie Johnson

I write this to my future self, to recognize all that I have healed from and overcome. I hope my story can contribute to your survival guide as you read this.

You have survived every bad day, and you are undefeated.

You are allowed to wake up every day and choose happiness.

When you don’t feel happiness, you will slow your breathing to slow your racing thoughts.

You deserve everything you dreamed of because you are a warrior and goal-achiever.

Growing up in rural South Dakota, if your school was lucky enough to have a counselor, they served more as an academic advisor or even coach/teacher than counselor. When I lost my father at age 16, the practice of grieving and healing was not part of the systematic process. The day after his death, I played in a volleyball game and marched in my band competition because it’s how we coped–just keep pushing forward. Speaking about weakness or sadness was kept inward. Years later, including several more deaths, getting hit by a drunk driver, having cancer, losing a family home to a tornado, and multiple failed ear surgeries, I continued to carry a mental load. By the time I became a mother, I had never developed the proper place to heal, nor did I take the time to process trauma.

Fast-forward to the pandemic. I completed my master’s program, moved my family to an urban area, and started a new career. My daughter is now eight years old, and she is the perfect product of who I am. I see now how not addressing my trauma and anxieties directly impacted her mind. Her moods, behaviors, and reactions directly reflect how my responses have evolved. After realizing this, I knew I needed to make a change.

As an educator and mother, I need to be the person that people want to show up for. Read that again. I must show up every day being the person that others want to show up for. Those who are in the business of people, know how incredibly taxing it is to cater to people day-in and day-out. When you are working in a giving and selfless profession, you can lose track of taking care of yourself and being kind to yourself. Knowing that you have an audience no matter what role you play means that you must understand a better you is better for everyone.

So to my future self. Please give yourself some grace. You have served your community and students and have impacted millions. You’ve poured into others simply by sharing gratitude and modeling a positive mindset, even when finding the positive seemed nearly impossible at the time. You have set up what success looks like to you and you are getting 1% better every single day to live a phenomenal life because you’ve survived. You continue to represent your people by cultivating a space that educates others on your Indigenous roots. You’ve raised a human-being that has mastered empathy, happiness, healing, and strength and she is proud of you. I am proud of you.

Dawn Marie Johnson

Director of Leadership & Culture


If you need help finding support, visit or call 211 now.

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The South Dakota Afterschool Network works to better our state and its communities by connecting providers, parents and policymakers with proven tools and resources to increase the quality of and access to out-of-school time programming for K-12 children and youth.

Afterschool is a lifeline that keeps youth safe, helps kids learn and grow, and provides parents the ability to work without worry. While South Dakota is home to more than 300 afterschool programs, the demand for programs exceeds available spaces. In fact, 1 in 3 South Dakota children (34 percent) who are not in an afterschool program would be enrolled if it were available. That’s more than 42,000 children who are missing out on opportunities to participate in programming that supports their development academically, socially and economically.

Afterschool can provide valuable opportunities for students to explore STEM, and we are here to help your program succeed in STEM Learning! From webinars and trainings to our signature TMC Trailers that bring turnkey STEM activities to your doorstep, our diverse collection of resources meets you and your students where you are and provides the support you need to deliver quality programming to your students at any age. 

The South Dakota Afterschool Network wanted to create a mapping tool to better understand the landscape of afterschool and summer programs available for children and families. From the initial launch of the new mapping tool, we have identified some startling findings.