Marvelous Marva

Published On 07/28/2017

Educator Marva Johnson dedicates her Saturday mornings, and her heart, to the babies of Le Bonheur

Ask Marva Johnson, principal of Altruia Elementary School in Bartlett, if she has any children and you’ll likely be taken aback by her answer.

“I have 825, and then 50,” says Marva. “825 at school, then there are about 50 babies at the NICU at a time. Those are my children.”

The NICU is the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital — and it’s where Marva has spent every Saturday morning for the past eight years, arriving in the pre-dawn hours to hold, feed, sing to and cuddle the littlest patients.

Marva Johnson at Le Bonheur

“I started praying, and asked God for a way for me to serve others more,” says Marva. The women’s minister at her church, Highland Church of Christ, heard about the need for volunteers at Le Bonheur. Marva signed up, completing all the paperwork and training necessary, save one piece – the specialized training for NICU volunteers. Then, she got a phone call from Le Bonheur, asking for her to come in. “I’ll train you,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

“I came – I had no excuse,” remembers Marva. “And after the first day, I just fell in love.”

Like a physician, Marva makes her own rounds of the NICU about 5:30 every Saturday morning, listening for the cry or coo of a baby in need.

“Often there is one that’s up and crying, that needs to be held, or needs to be fed,” says Marva. “I get gowned up, washed up, and go and get them.”

She nicknames each child she cares for. There’s Little Miss Sunshine, who is an early riser like Marva. There’s Little Mr. Feistiness and Little Miss Spitfire – two babies who loudly proclaim their presence. And there’s Sweet Pea, a little girl who lights up and kicks her tiny legs when Marva starts talking to her, knowing a warm embrace is just moments away.

“I see some personality, and the type of person that baby may be,” says Marva. Nicknaming the babies gives Marva a way for her to share what happens during her NICU mornings with her staff or church friends, all the while guarding the babies’ privacy.

Marva Johnson in volunteer garb

Marva’s love for the NICU babies is so evident, her fellow church members and her students and co-workers at Altruia Elementary have become her mighty force for supporting the hospital in general and the NICU in particular. Marva’s colleagues from school frequently treat the NICU nurses and staff to potluck lunches, while Highland Church of Christ members provide meals for families and staff, and collect snack foods, gift cards and items for the patient rooms. Her students participate in Go Jim Go – the annual fundraiser/bike tour of the Mid-South by WREG News Channel 3 Meteorologist Jim Jaggers. The students’ most recent fundraising goal was $3,200 for Go Jim Go, but they raised $5,100 – a true testament to their principal and her passion for the NICU babies. They contribute their small change to buy books for the volunteers to read to the babies, too.

“I was walking down the hall one day … I could hear this voice, ‘Miss Johnson, Miss Johnson,’” says Marva, who knelt down to talk to the kindergarten student who called out to her. “She unrolled her little fingers, and there were …” Marva stops, trying to catch her breath as she cries, apologizing for her emotion. With a deep breath, she continued. “And there were 10 shiny pennies to help the babies, to  help the hospital. I think that says it all. I believe if you teach children to give, they will be adults who give,” she says. “What better lesson to teach?”

Marva has seen her work at the hospital come full circle, as well. When she was signing out from her shift, a volunteer ahead of her turned and told her that her child had been one of Marva’s NICU babies, and that inspired her to volunteer at Le Bonheur.

Marva Johnson

“You just never know how you’re going to influence somebody else’s life,” says Marva. “What a difference, the comfort that mother found, in knowing there was somebody here holding her baby when she couldn’t.”

Marva calls her volunteer work at Le Bonheur a blessing, but she is an equal blessing to Le Bonheur, both as a volunteer and as a donor. Marva has made Le Bonheur a beneficiary of part of her estate, creating a true legacy of love.

“This hospital is a part of my heart,” says Marva. “I’ve really been trying to think of what else can I do, even after I am gone … this is a way I can give a piece of myself.”

Every Saturday morning, Marva gives more than a piece of herself to the babies of NICU and Le Bonheur: She gives her heart.


Volunteers serve an important role at Le Bonheur, and there’s a need for more “unit buddies” on our floors. A few hours of your time could make a real difference in the life of a child. As a volunteer, you will benefit just as much, if not more, than the patients and families you help.

Volunteer opportunities include creating crafts with patients, helping at special events, supporting patients and siblings in the Emergency Department, hosting game days and more. For a complete list of volunteer opportunities, visit