CHAPEL HILL Noah Johnson entered the Hillsborough courtroom with glasses and a smile on his face and walked immediately to the defendant’s table.
With shoes shining, dressed in all black, he was excited. His client was a middle school student who had gotten suspended after being caught with marijuana.
“I like being the defense attorney and defending people more than I like prosecuting them,” Johnson said.
He especially enjoys helping people when the law has been unfair to them and he thinks they should not have been charged in the first place.
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Johnson is not a grown-up attorney. He’s a 16-year-old 10th-grader at Chapel Hill High School.
But he’s winning grown-up awards.
For his work at Orange County Teen Court, he was one of 15 people or groups in the state honored as a “Volunteer of the Year” by the Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism. Johnson volunteers for teen court most Mondays doing different duties like serving on the jury, but he rarely prosecutes the defendant.
“As a culture we feel like we want to be tough on crime, and I feel like that’s the wrong idea,” he said. “The proper way to deal with this is to work with them and understand why they’re doing it and not just punish them. Rehabilitation is the goal not punishment.
“These are kids, and I don’t feel like they should ever be treated as hardened criminals,” he continued. “The best thing we can do as a culture is to show them that there’s something different you can do and you don’t have to break the law.”
His teen court coordinator, Kate Giduz, nominated him for a Key Volunteer Award, which he won, making him eligible for “Volunteer of the Year.”
The award recognizes individuals that make a significant contribution to their community through volunteer service. Any person, group, business or nonprofit may be nominated.
Johnson’s dad, Tyler Johnson, said he and his wife, Noah’s step-mom, were excited when he got the award.
“The thing I was most excited about is the opportunities that its going to open up for him and to be able to have this on his vita,” Tyler Johnson said. “But also a recognition that he is capable of some wonderful things. We tell him all the time how great he his but ...”
“But you’re my parents,” Noah interrupted. “I don’t believe anything you say.”
“Every parent says that, but this is proof,” Tyler Johnson said.
Johnson also volunteers at United Tae Kwon Do Academy in Carrboro, helping the instructor teach the younger children.
“Tae Kwon Do has allowed me the ability to give back to help other people who were going through the same thing I was when I was younger,” he said.
A tough time
Things weren’t always easy for Johnson.
His parents split up when he was 6 years old and his dad moved him and his brother from Carrboro to Chapel Hill. For years, he struggled emotionally, he said.
He started doing Tae Kwon Do to help cope.
“I see some of my younger self in a lot them, and that’s sort of interesting,” Noah Johnson said. “I like being able to guide them, and I like giving back.”
Johnson was one of two students honored, and Gov. Pat McCrory handed him the award at a ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion.
“He’s a little bit of a taller guy than I am,” Johnson said. “But he was a nice guy.”
He said the most shocking thing was to know that he was being recognized alongside other recipients who had dedicated their life to community service.
Giduz said Johnson is her go-to-guy.
“He’s not doing this because he wants volunteer hours to put on his résumé for college,” Giduz said. “He enjoys being here, so I think that’s one really important thing: To enjoy the volunteering you do. Even while he’s volunteering he’s helping to teach others to volunteer also.”
Johnson said he did not expect to win awards.
“It’s getting a little bit crazy,” he said. “I’ve done some stuff, but I don’t think I’ve done that much. It’s kind of humbling.