Carolyn L. Johnson

Edwin Wolf II
Edmund N. Bacon

The 61st ceremony for the Philadelphia Award, presented in early 1983, was the first of the 61 award ceremonies to be televised, and there is probably no better person that should start this trend, than the recipient of the 1982 award, Carolyn Johnson. As the founder and leader of several organizations, Johnson had utilized new and cutting-edge ways to bring public awareness to the plight of children who needed adoption, particularly “hard-to-place” youngsters--those over age eight; with mental, physical, or emotional handicaps; of minority backgrounds; or in sibling groups which needed to stay together. She waged a campaign that resulted in a dramatic increase in the adoption rate of “hard-to-place” children—children who, all too often, had been considered “unadoptable.”

R aised in Buffalo, New York, Johnson and her husband Rod, adopted their first child in 1967. Loie was a newborn of Iranian-American descent. The Johnsons fell in love with the baby immediately. After moving to Philadelphia in 1968, the Johnsons struck again by adopting Gregory, a mixed race infant of eight months, and Dennis, a black child of sixteen months. During the 1970s Johnson experienced the trials and joys of raising a multi-racial family. She organized the Open Door Society, a network of bi-racial families that strove both to support the parents and to ensure that their children had ample opportunities to learn of their own cultural heritages.

Johnson soon realized, however, that there was more to be done. She founded the Delaware Valley Adoption Council, with Paddy Noyes, a newspaper columnist and fellow adoptive parent. Their first project was when they proposed what eventually became, “Friday’s Child,” a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer that showcases a child up for adoption in hopes that a wanting family would see him or her and inquire. At first the process was slow. Many adoption agencies were unwilling to put their children in the news media, fearful that advertising children in this way was ethically suspect. Undaunted, Johnson and Noyes pressed forward and convinced two adoption agencies to allow some of their children to be posted in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The response from prospective adoptive parents was overwhelming, and the column is now a major tool in the adoption process.

Still, Johnson, wanting to do more on behalf of “hard-to-place” children, founded the Delaware Valley Adoption Resource Exchange (DARE) in 1972, a multifaceted agency and umbrella organization that focused on matching children with prospective adoptive parents. In 1975, the Adoption Center of Delaware Valley was formed, with Johnson as its executive director, and DARE as its most important program. The expanded organization was also active in community outreach and policy advocacy. By 1983 the organization had placed over 800 children.

The largest boost to the center came in 1983, when the center received a $350,000 grant for a national website to facilitate their work online, which would be called, “FACES of Adoption: America’s Waiting Children,” ( The center essentially was transformed into the National Adoption Center and was officially partnered with the federal Department of Health and Human Services. As a result of Johnson’s efforts, twenty thousand children were adopted.

At her award ceremony, Johnson reminded the crowd that many children “still wait and dream of becoming permanent members of families.” In a 1999 interview, Johnson said: “There are 110,000 kids out there, free to be adopted…We truly believe that there are no unwanted children, just unfound homes.” In 2004 Johnson left a thriving organization behind when she retired as executive director of the National Adoption Center.

Amanda Fellmeth

Sources: Stan Hochman, “Johnson Adopts Passion for Seafood,” Philadelphia Daily News, Jan. 29, 1999; “Adoption Center Founder Retires,” and “Our History,” National Adoption Center, The following are collected in the Philadelphia Award Records: Series 1 (Board and Financial), Minutes, vol. 4; Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 17, folder 17: newspaper clipping, history of the Adoption Center of Delaware Valley. Photo: Image courtesy of Carolyn L. Johnson.