Living Undeterred

How An RV And A National Tour Are Helping Advocate For Mental Health
Jeff Johnston posing with a woman giving a thumbs up in front of his RV

October 6, 2016, is the day my life changed forever. At 6:30 am, I got the call that every parent dreads: my oldest son had passed away from a drug overdose. Before I got that call, I felt I had reached the peak of my life. I had built a very successful investment company, I was happily married to my wife, and we had three beautiful children. But anyone who has gone through severe trauma and grief knows that these things occur in chapters. The chapter of my life with three children had ended and a completely new chapter had begun.

For months, I struggled with the devastating news. It wasn’t until December 2017 that I realized I needed to do something different with my life. I remember thinking to myself, “I have two roads to go down. One road is full of anger, hatred and despair. And the other road is full of hope and inspiration.” So, I decided to choose the second one.

Purpose Becomes Passion When It Gets Personal

I decided to put my career in finance on hold and, for the past few years, have dedicated all of my time and energy to honoring my son’s memory and helping others who are dealing with mental health, addiction and substance abuse. In 2020, I founded Choices Network, Ltd., a non-profit whose mission is to educate kids, parents, teachers, and coaches on the importance of making positive choices. I also wrote my first book, This One’s For You: An Inspirational Journey Through Addiction, Death and Meaning and I started The Living Undeterred Project

Sadly, during this same time, my wife passed away from alcoholism. I’ve always believed that purpose becomes passion when it gets personal. And after losing both my son and my wife, my purpose to help others had become my passion. I felt compelled to do more, but wasn’t exactly sure what “more” meant. It wasn’t until I was running on the elliptical and heard a story about a dad from Iowa that was riding his bike across the state to raise money for breast cancer awareness that it hit me. Yes, I had written a book, started a podcast, and was active online and on social media, but Living Undeterred needed a physical presence. And if this dad could do it on a bike, then why couldn’t I do something like that too?

I stayed up all night working on a business plan and laying out what a Living Undeterred national tour could look like. My goal was to travel across the country, meet with local advocates and connect different nonprofits. And getting an RV felt like the best way to accomplish all of this…

Jeff Johnston giving a presentation

The Push I Needed

After laying out my plan, I immediately drove to the closest Camping World. Three hours later, I walked out with a brand new Thor Motor Coach Hurricane Class A. I had never driven something that big before, let alone spent any time in an RV. I didn’t know what a slide-out was or what the difference between black and gray tanks were. But I had a bigger passion—I knew I needed to talk to people about mental health, substance abuse and addiction and I wouldn’t let my lack of RV knowledge stop me.

From that point on, it was all a matter of planning and logistics. I practiced driving the RV a few times, and leaned on friends and other RVers to help show me the ropes. I got the hang of everything pretty quickly. And in June 2022, I left my home in Iowa and set out on a 95-day national tour. To be honest, if I had walked out of Camping World that day without an RV, I don’t think the national tour would’ve happened. It was the push and the vessel I needed (quite literally) to help me start this next chapter.

My Mental Health Magnet

Over the course of three months, I visited nearly 30 different cities, covered over 20,000 miles, and met countless people. Having the RV was important for a few reasons. First, I’m just a dad from Iowa and so it was critical that my identity be accurately and genuinely reflected during this tour. I wanted to relate to people and spend time with them, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I taken a private plane from place to place or jumped around between hotels. Additionally, having the RV allowed me to connect with local people and organizations more deeply. I could pull up and park right outside each of the events. And the custom skin and paint job on the exterior of the RV caught people’s attention. I can’t tell you how many times someone stopped me at a gas station or rest stop to tell me that they had Googled Living Undeterred and were amazed by the story and the mission. I started referring to the RV as my “mental health magnet” because it drew people in. Not only the people and groups that came to visit during the national tour, but all of the in-between people that saw me along the way.

I’m a firm believer that raising awareness isn’t enough; you have to bring attention to the issue. And that’s exactly what the RV did—it drew people in, facilitated connections, encouraged vulnerability, and made people ask questions.

Starting Individually, Helping Collectively

The 2022 national tour ended in September, but it has changed my life in ways that I never saw coming. The idea for the tour began with my personal story but it has opened my eyes to so many other, different stories. It made me a better listener, and grew a greater desire to be the best advocate, caretaker and friend that I can possibly be. People may come to Living Undeterred individually but we can tackle the problem collectively.

My goal to end the stigma around mental health, substance abuse and addiction, and to start the conversation with those who are struggling or have struggled, still remains. But I know this is just the beginning and I have a lot of exciting things planned for the future. Many of which will include my trusty mental health magnet.

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