Winner Of Duke 'Employee Community Service Award'

Neuroscientist Betsy Johnson makes exercise memorable during volunteering

Betsy Johnson, at left in second row wearing a pink jacket, prepares to walk the Great Human Race with Threshold members. Photo courtesy of Threshold.

Keep your feet moving.

That's the one rule Betsy Johnson sets for the circuit walking class she leads as a volunteer at Threshold, a Durham not-for-profit agency that serves adults with severe mental illness. 

Up to two dozen Threshold members join Johnson each Sunday afternoon to participate in an adult version of `follow-the-leader.' As they walk in place in a large circle, each participant takes his or her turn leading the group through movements such as squats, air punches or jumping jacks. 

"It's a fun way to help members take ownership of their exercise and understand the value of physical movement," said Johnson, a research assistant and PhD candidate at Duke who has volunteered at Threshold for two years. 

Duke recognized the value of Johnson's volunteer work at Threshold with this year's Employee Community Service Award. Duke's Office of Durham and Regional Affairs gives the award annually to a Duke employee who demonstrates an outstanding commitment to service. The award comes with a gift of $200 to the organization where the employee volunteers.

Irene Dwinnell, development director at Threshold, said Johnson's ability to help members understand the importance of health is essential because people with severe and persistent mental illness have an average lifespan 25 years shorter than people without mental illness. 

"Betsy has helped us make our Sunday afternoon social time healthy without anyone feeling the usual pains or pangs associated with getting into better shape," Dwinnell said. 

Johnson understands the value of making exercise easy, fun and memorable because her own work centers on studying neural systems known to be dysfunctional in schizophrenia, in particular, those involved in the interaction between reward and memory systems. 

"I love it when a club member comes up to me and says `keep your feet moving' because then I know that they've have remembered the importance of being active," Johnson said.  

Inspired by the perseverance of Threshold members to become productive members of the Durham community, Johnson recently joined the Threshold Board of Directors. "I'm proud to be a small part of the amazing work that Threshold does to improve the lives of people with severe mental illness," she said.

The staff at Threshold say the honor is well deserved. 

"Betsy's compassion, commitment and ability to make being healthy easy have made an enormous impact on our Clubhouse," Dwinnell said. "She gives so much of herself while asking for nothing in return."