By Sharon A. Lewis

Each year minority people from all walks of life achieve “firsts” and there is no doubt it will continue into the future. The tenure of Constance Hill-Johnson, the first African American woman to serve as Chairman of the Board of Directors for The Cleveland Foundation, began in April of this year (2022) and will run for two years. TCO wanted to find out who she is at her core, what she has accomplished, and what the future holds for her. Many people know her as the owner and managing director of Visiting Angels Living Assistance Services, a national franchise located in Cleveland, Ohio. Her agency is now in its 20th year. Visiting Angels provides services for the elderly ranging from companion assistance to dementia care and palliative care.

Mrs. Hill-Johnson was born and raised here in Cleveland, Ohio. She lived on Thornhill Drive in the Glenville Neighborhood with three siblings and dedicated parents that nurtured and pushed them all to succeed. She graduated from Collinwood High School and from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech Communications. When asked what was the best advice her parents gave when she started college, Constance chuckled a little bit and said that her mother told her “to find some smart friends and to do what they did.” For instance, “if they go to the library, you go to the library; if they get a tutor, you get a tutor.” After graduating from CWRU, her first job was with Neighborhood Family Practice on the West side.

Her next position was with Merrill Lynch, first here in Cleveland, and then in Detroit, Michigan as an Institutional Sales Broker on an equity sales and trading desk. This is where she perfected the art of investing and saving her money. However, the earliest prompting on how to save money came from her father. She said if he was going to give you some money he waited until the last possible minute to remove it from his wallet and put it in your hand. She also remembers being taken to Society National Bank after getting her first job (at 13 years old) to open a savings account. Constance was told that she had to save something and that she had to give something to the church.

Fast forward a few years, Hill-Johnson earned a Master of Public Administration degree with an emphasis in Health Services from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It was after 9/11 that she made a career decision to purchase her franchise with Visiting Angels Living Assistance Services. The biggest question at that time was where the best place to set up shop would be: St. Louis, where she had been working for a company called Service Masters, or Cleveland? After thinking it through, Constance decided to come back to Cleveland.  When most people start a business by purchasing a franchise, they must take out a loan, essentially starting off in debt. However, that was not Hill-Johnson’s situation because she had money saved up. The difficulty was simply having to write the biggest check she had ever written in her life. For two years Constance worked out of her mother’s basement and used the Border’s Bookstore at Severance Shopping Center to meet with clients. It was finally time to get an actual office and hire staff—which is how she landed in her current location at 12200 Fairhill Blvd.

Understanding that networking and giving back to the community is important, Hill-Johnson has earned many accolades and has been on many influential boards in the Cleveland area. In 2005, she was appointed by the Cuyahoga County Board of Commissioners to the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging’s Board of Trustees, and is a Board Member of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging. In 2007, she was nominated and selected as one of the Top Ten Women Business Owners in Northeast Ohio by the National Association of Women Business Owners. She also serves on the Board of Adults at Risk which is part of the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry and the African American Outreach Committee of the Hospice of the Western Reserve. Hill-Johnson is a past co-chairman of the African American Philanthropy Committee of the Cleveland Foundation. She was also a 2017 Crain’s Women of Note Honoree.

Hill-Johnson’s work at Visiting Angels is a ministry. She works closely with family members and the elderly to guide them on a path that best fits their needs. From Living Wills to Power-of-Attorney documents, and sending in caregivers, there is a lot of hand-holding and comforting. Many of the caregivers are with the clients when they take their last breath. Hill-Johnson must have a heart for people to help them when they are most vulnerable.

From her experience, African-American families are the least prepared when it comes to end-of-life preparedness and is looking for a way to “get the word out.” It is not fair to leave it to your children and family. It should be done when you are able to express your wishes.

Hill-Johnson’s advice to today’s children and young adults whether it is a fourth-grade class or college seniors, “You can be whatever you want to be. Understand that college is not for everyone and that if you have a skill you need to develop it and be your authentic self. If you are good in sports and excel in [a particular] sport, that is great, but don’t put all your eggs there. America needs Black professionals.”

When approached about submitting her name as the potential Chairman of the Cleveland Foundation she was hesitant. Humbly she said, “Why me?” But she was told, “Why not you?” Constance submitted her name and the rest is history. Although on one occasion she was at a meeting and a young woman said to her, “You know how Beyoncé was the first Black woman to perform at Coachella? Mrs. Hill-Johnson, you are my Beyoncé!” She was floored and almost brought to tears.