Johnson Countians who inspired us in 2021

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Following 2020, many expected 2021 to be easier in a lot of ways.

Much like last year, though, 2021 saw its fair share of challenges. But for many people in the community, that just meant putting in that much more effort to do good.

From saving neglected animals and rolling up sleeves to help the fight against COVID-19, to creating a lighthearted environment for those who needed it, many Johnson Countians stepped up to look out for each other this year.

These are some of the Johnson Countians who inspired us in 2021:

Brenda Kotar, registered nurse who deployed to NYC and Texas for COVID-19, Prairie Village 

While the COVID-19 pandemic continued to put a strain on the healthcare field, Brenda Kotar pushed through. 

She deployed three times across the country to help COVID-19 patients in New York and Texas.

She said seeing the impact of the pandemic so closely was intense and it gave her insight into complications of COVID-19, as well as the willpower of her fellow nurses and doctors. 

“To the general public, our day-to-day life, those people aren’t seeing what we’re seeing in a hospital,” she said. “That makes it really frustrating because there are residuals to COVID. There are the long haulers who still aren’t better.” 

Read more: Shawnee Mission Faces: Brenda Kotar, registered nurse who was deployed to NYC, Texas for COVID-19

Hannah White Willems, fibromyalgia patient turned exercise instructor, Lenexa 

Hannah White Willems spent years in intense pain. 

When she developed fibromyalgia, a debilitating and complex health condition that impacts the muscles and skeletal system, everything from walking and eating to socializing became more difficult.

Then in 2016, after 20 minutes of intense prayer and a newfound support system at Olathe’s Church of the Harvest, a “switch” went off in her brain and she gradually began to heal. 

Today, White Willems is a workout instructor at the Lenexa Rec Center. Her high-intensity classes make her feel powerful and she hopes to pass that onto those who join in. 

I don’t take my health for granted,” she said. “I’m joyful whenever I have a chance to move my body. I just see the joy in the movement. I want to share that with other people.” 

Read more: Fibromyalgia pain put this Shawnee Mission teacher in a wheelchair. Now she teaches exercise classes.

Unleashed Pet Rescue, animal shelter, Mission 


In September, the staff at Mission animal shelter Unleashed Pet Rescue took in more than 120 new dogs and puppies while the shelter was already operating at capacity. 

These dogs came from a fraudulent shelter in Oklahoma and many of them were sick, injured or pregnant. Of those the shelter rescued, 116 survived the trip back to Kansas. 

Unleashed’s owner Danielle Reno and the shelter’s staff provided them with medical treatment and were able to place a majority of them in new homes across Johnson County. 

“We don’t give up on our animals, so it’s an amazing feeling to get them from where they were, and bring them up, get them healthy and see them full circle,” Reno said. “That full circle keeps us all going.” 

Read more: Unleashed Pet Rescue in Mission saved 116 dogs from fake shelter — here’s what happened to them

Jennifer and Adam Parker, Tiny Pantry owners, Overland Park 

Overland Park Tiny Pantry

This holiday season, Jennifer Parker worked hard to provide for local families who were struggling to keep food on the table. 

Last year, she created the “Tiny Pantry Times”, a mini pantry in her front yard built by her husband Adam.

The pantry is complete with a space for dry goods, toiletries, and other resources, and also has a refrigerated unit for perishable items like meat.

Since it’s start, it has served at least 150 individuals and 60 families across the area. It is now officially classified as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. 

The pantry has received support from local businesses and members of the community, and Parker said it has brought a sense of togetherness. 

“They said, ‘During the pandemic, we have all felt so isolated; this has brought us together as a community with a common goal, and you have created this community, not only for the recipients but also for the donors,” she said. “It’s given us purpose. It’s given them all something to do, and they all feel really good about it. It has really brought us all together.” 

Read more: Overland Park couple’s Tiny Pantry grows to serve dozens of families this holiday season — how you can help

The “We’re Not Dead Yet” Mission Square Meerkats, a band of senior living residents, Mission 

MIssion Square band

Last year, Dean Jernigan and 15 of his fellow residents at the Mission Square independent senior living community in Mission got bored. 

They were musically inclined and found playing together to be therapeutic during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting quarantines.

The “We’re Not Dead Yet” Mission Square Meerkats have since performed at various live gigs and formed a “meerkat family” during what has been an up-and-down second year of the pandemic. 

“It’s been remarkable,” Jernigan said. “The people who joined (the band) and stayed with it the whole time, they seem to be enjoying it. You have the whole thing about activity and music and coordination, and that type of thing – which we benefit from physically – that’s a good thing, too.” 

Read more: ‘We’re Not Dead Yet’ — how 16 residents at Mission Square senior living center formed a band during COVID-19

Lorrie A. Trout, convicted felon and founder of ministry for ex-convicts, Olathe

Following a conviction that led to a place on the sex offender registry and time behind bars, Lorrie A. Trout experienced firsthand the struggles that incarcerated women face. 

Once out herself, she wanted her former fellow inmates to have a better chance at a fresh start. So she created faith-based nonprofit Grace Restores Overcoming Women (GROW).

The nonprofit aims to help ex-convicts regain their footing. Since its inception, GROW’s volunteers have served more than 25 women in Overland Park, Lenexa and Olathe. 

“In our program, I tell them from day number one, I share my testimony to let them know, you don’t have to be defined by your past,” she said. “You can take that mistake from the past and grow from it.” 

Read more: Shawnee Mission Faces: Lorrie A. Trout, convicted felon and founder of ministry for ex-convicts like herself

Rusty James, retired police officer and chronic dog rescuer, Lenexa 


As a police officer, Rusty James had a soft spot for dogs and enjoyed taking animal-related calls. 

This led to him becoming a longtime dog rescuer — mostly for Boxer breeds. People in his community know he’s the person to call when there’s a dog to rescue, and he’s seen many dogs at their worst. 

“I don’t know what their life was like before, but I know how it’s going to end,” James said. “They’re going to be very well taken care of, they’re going to live the good life.” 

Read more: Shawnee Mission Faces: Rusty James, retired police officer and chronic dog rescuer

Nkemjika Obi, Nigerian immigrant and SM North grad going to Stanford, Overland Park 

Education had always been important to Nkemjika Obi.

Her family immigrated to the United States from Enugu, Nigeria for the sake of a better education for her and her siblings. It was important to her father, who made it through pharmacy school while struggling with an injury that made it difficult to walk. 

He became sick and passed away before Obi’s family came to the United States. He was her inspiration to work so hard academically, she said.

She graduated in 2021 from Shawnee Mission North High School and now attends Stanford University, studying political science, international relations and African and African-American studies. 

“I want to give words of encouragement to young people, because I was in the same shoes,” she said. “It’s only impossible until you do it, right? I think a lot of it is just taking that first step.” 

Read more: Shawnee Mission Faces: Nkemjika Obi, Nigerian immigrant and SM North grad going to Stanford

Brittney Hunter, pediatric nurse and marathon runner, Prairie Village 

Brittney Hunter has dealt with health challenges her whole life.

As a child experiencing auto-immune issues and surgeries, the biggest impact came from the nurses who were by her side along the way. This led to an epiphany when she was in college; she decided to become a pediatric nurse.

She loves seeing the resilience that the kids she works with have. She experienced a resilience of her own when she picked up running and became determined to run a full marathon.

Her cardiovascular surgeon didn’t think she’d be able to, but she trained anyway, and now marathons are her favorite thing to do. 

“I think that if you can take any sort of challenge in your life or adversity or something like that and spin it a different way, you’re going to come out better and stronger on the other side because of it,” she said. 

Read more: Shawnee Mission Faces: Brittney Hunter, pediatric nurse and marathon runner

About the author

Lucie Krisman
Lucie Krisman

Hi! I’m Lucie Krisman, and I cover local business for the Johnson County Post.

I’m a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, but have been living in Kansas since I moved here to attend KU, where I earned my degree in journalism. Prior to joining the Post, I did work for The Pitch, the Eudora Times, the North Dakota Newspaper Association and KTUL in Tulsa.