Held in memory of the 21-year-old East Tennessee State University graduate who was killed by an intruder at her Knoxville apartment on Dec. 6, 2004, the toy drive annually assists more than 3,000 children at 15 schools and child-service organizations across East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
“In some places, this fills in for what they are lacking,” Johnia’s mother, Joan Berry, said during Monday’s kickoff. “That was (Johnia’s) love and that’s what she was doing on the night she was murdered.”
An early education major employed at the ETSU’s Child Study Center during her final semester, Johnia Berry spent the evening before she was stabbed to death to death during an attempted burglary of her home Christmas shopping for children she cared for at the center.
“She had them all laid out in her living room, wrapped and labeled for who they were to go to. My son and I delivered them,” Joan Berry said. “This is a hard time of year for us, and this helps us get through it.”
Steve Smith, a friend of the Berry family and president of KVAT food stores, had known Johnia Berry since her childhood and has supported the toy drive held in her memory since its launch in 2005.
Food City shoppers who wish to help are invited to place new, unwrapped toys in collection barrels at the stores’ entrances for the Berry family to distribute to area schools and service agencies on the anniversary of Johnia’s murder.
Toys donated at Tri-Cities area stores go to children in need at the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greeneville, the First Judicial District Children’s Advocacy Center in Johnson City, the Haven of Mercy in Johnson City and Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol city schools.
In addition to the toy drive, the Berry family has spent the years since Johnia’s death working to strengthen legislation requiring DNA testing for criminal offenders in Tennessee and across the county.
With Tennessee’s passage of the Johnia Berry Act in 2007, her home state became the eighth in the nation to require felony offenders to submit to DNA tests. Twenty-seven states now require the tests. And in Tennessee, where the law originally applied to 13 specific offenses, the legislation was expanded in 2011 to include 18 offenses.
The family’s goal is to see the law made applicable to all crimes.
“It took them 2 1/2 years to find who murdered our daughter. Even though he had past arrests, there was no database. They collected over 400 DNA samples in Johnia’s case alone. That’s lot of money and a lot of time that could have been saved, not to mention the 2 1/2 years of heartache for us.
Joan Berry said a study released this year that found Tennessee to be No. 1 in violent crime is “a perfect reason to have better laws and better tools for law enforcement to do what’s needed to make Tennessee a safer place.”
More information about the toy drive and the Berry family’s ongoing work to strengthen DNA testing mandates is available online at www.johniaberry.org.