Someone to Look Up to at Y.M.C.A.

Day camp leader: ‘Be the best person you can be’
Dennis Johnson is an inspiration to young and old, the Y’s director, Glenn Vickers, has said. Jack Graves

After the accident in 2010 that deprived him of the use of his legs, two of his upper thoracic vertebrae having been fractured, Dennis Johnson, who loved just about all sports as a youth, said he was “a little bit depressed.”

But, he said, his family and friends, one of whom, Justine Giles, he is now engaged to marry, had helped to get him back on track. “They were there for me every day.”

A leader of the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter’s popular day camp, and a full-time Y employee since Glenn Vickers became its executive director a few years ago, the 27-year-old said during a conversation there the other day that the good news coming out of the motor vehicle accident was that he was alive. The bad news, of course, was that because of the fractured T2 and T3 vertebrae he had lost the use of his legs.

“Yes, I would call it a blessing in the end,” he said. “It slowed me down. Not that I was a bad person, but the way I was then I suppose I could have been arrested. It was God saying, ‘Slow down, I’ve got a different plan for you now.’ ” Certainly there were adjustments to be made, but now, save for one or two things, he can get about fine, so well in fact that, according to Vickers, “he’s an inspiration to one and all here, young and old, who, when they see him scoot about in that wheelchair say to themselves, ‘I should be trying harder.’ ”

In high school, Johnson, who has a brother and two sisters, did just about everything sportswise — football, basketball, indoor and outdoor track, lacrosse.

A cornerback in football, in track he triple-jumped, long-jumped, high-jumped, ran the 55-meter dash indoors, “a little bit of everything.” Eddie McGintee had encouraged him to go out for lacrosse, he said, and he did for a while, “though sometimes I’d be running along and getting ready to pass or shoot and the ball would come out.”

Before the accident he had worked at the Y in the summer — “I loved working with the kids” — and also for the town. “I’d be up at 4 a.m. cleaning up the beaches and after that, at around 8, I’d go over to the Y. I don’t work for the town now — I’m just here.”

After the accident, in February of 2010, the director at the time encouraged him to continue working with the summer campers. Then Vickers arrived, and asked why he wasn’t there year round. “Glenn’s helped me, he gave me my first shot.”

As for the Y’s day camp, which is based largely at East Hampton High School, Johnson, who works with about eight other counselors, takes pride in the fact that his 4-through-12 group has grown from 7 last year to 27.

“In the mornings, we do conditioning and stretching, and we do drills, things they can do in soccer and basketball with cones. . . . We make sure they know the rules and regulations and we critique them afterwards. Also we’ve been teaching them new games . . . cricket, European handball, bocce. . . .” 

“We teach them to treat each other with respect,” he added. “Sportsmanship is the first thing we talk about. We have them shake hands afterwards and say, ‘Good game.’ Everything I’ve learned I try to pass on to them, even cautioning them to look both ways when they cross the street, and, as I said, to be respectful.”

When it came to asking how he had come to be confined to a wheelchair, “kids are more straightforward than adults,” Johnson said. “They say straight up, ‘Tell us about it.’ And when you tell them, they say, ‘That’s cool, you’re still the same person.’ ”

While adults have been in that regard more reticent, he sensed, he said, that they too looked up to him. It was, he agreed, a good feeling.

Fran McConnel and Rosie Orlando have taught him to swim, using water wings to buoy up his legs. He’d also like to get a racing wheelchair, though he knows they’re expensive. He could compete in swimming too, he acknowledged, “though I’ve got to work on the basics.” 

He could also ride a bike, or a trike, he said, pedaling with his hands. “Going down hills fast would be fun. . . . I do wheelies in my wheelchair for the kids. I’m the point guard when we shoot around outside. . . .” 

In brief, there is nothing he couldn’t do. As opposed to some people, he said, he likes challenges.

And it was a nice feeling to have someone he’d counseled as a camper three years ago or so, who is now of driving age, call out to him at Stop & Shop. “I might not remember their name, but they remember me. . . .” 

“So, I continue on my way. I like it that people look up to me. If I can touch other lives that would be great.”