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From Living in Shelters to Uplifting Them: Nikki Johnson-Alfano’s Impact on Saint John’s Hospice

Becoming a lawyer and owning a lot of shoes—those were the early motivations for Saint John’s Hospice (SJH) board member Nikki Johnson-Alfano as she sought to make a difference in the world.

It is also the response that the ten-year-old Johnson-Alfano gave to her grandmother, Ann Johnson, when she asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer? A lawyer who could speak up for those with no voice.

“I didn’t really understand what a lawyer did, but to me a lawyer was someone who spoke for people who couldn’t speak for themselves,” Johnson-Alfano said. “I felt powerless, voiceless, and invisible. I didn’t understand how people could be allowed to live on the street and have instability.”

And the shoes? As a girl, she spent time in homeless shelters. “I lost a pair of shoes that fit me in one of the shelters, and the pair they gave me never quite fit,” she said.

Even at age 10, she made it her goal to never go without a pair that fit again.

The shoes served as an inspiration that included a successful legal career, work as an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, and being named United States of America’s Ms. Pennsylvania 2020. It has also included her work at SJH, first as a speaker, and now as a board member. Johnson-Alfano believes SJH sees each person as a whole, listening and supporting individuals as they seek to reach the next level of stability.

“There’s a level of respect that I see here, which is why I continue to support them,” she said.

The Journey to Law School

Johnson-Alfano was born in Detroit, Michigan to a young, single mother. Looking for a better life for herself and her children, Johnson-Alfano’s mom moved her and her brother to California. After experiencing financial difficulties during her mother’s battle with drug addiction, Johnson-Alfano became homeless at the age of nine.

Bouncing from motels to shelters, she eventually went to live with her grandmother, Ann. It was a pivotal moment for her and it marked the start of real stability in her life. Despite living on limited resources, Ann taught her granddaughter the value of hard work and the importance of an education. She became Johnson-Alfano’s biggest supporter.

Upon graduating high school, Johnson-Alfano moved to Philadelphia to attend Saint Joseph’s University. Struggling to adjust to college life with students who came from more affluent families, she dropped out during her freshman year.

“It was really hard trying to go to college without a lot of economic support,” she said. “Coming from a poor background I felt like a fish out of water. It was a big culture shock.”

After dropping out Johnson-Alfano began babysitting on the Philadelphia Main Line for two lawyers. They pushed her to finish college. She returned to Saint Joseph’s through its night school program. In 1988, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management.

After completing her undergraduate work, Johnson-Alfano decided pursue her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. She was accepted to Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, where she earned her JD, MBA, and LLM in Taxation. She then went on to found a law practice, Philly Tax Diva, focusing on Philadelphia city tax disputes for businesses and individuals.

An Introduction to Saint John’s Hospice

Johnson-Alfano enjoys sharing her story, hoping to inspire those who were in the position she was as a youth. In 2017, while speaking at the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day Event, Barry Martin, Program Director for SJH, approached her.

“She had such a powerful story. I thought she was amazing,” Martin said. “I went up to her and asked if she would be willing to share her story with the men at SJH.”

Johnson-Alfano believed in the mission and accepted Barry’s invitation. Since 2017, she has spoken at SJH numerous times, sharing her story and empowering people experiencing homelessness.

Among her many accomplishments, Johnson-Alfano was United States of America’s Ms. Pennsylvania 2020 and crowned as Ms. Universe 2021-2022 in Las Vegas. In 2020 she also competed in her first United States of America Pageant where she made the top six and won the People’s Choice Award. She was awarded a cash prize of $1,250 which she donated to SJH’s Good Shepherd program.

“(SJH) uplifts but holds people accountable,” Johnson-Alfano said. “There are certain things in life no one can do for you. But there has to be an environment that supports you while you’re getting to that place. SJH provides that.

“They show that they truly care about the advancement of people who come here. Providing the services that people need, but also the accountability.”

Eventually her relationship with SJH grew to the point where Martin asked her to serve on the board, and she accepted. She appreciates being on the board as she is the only woman of color and the youngest so she can give different perspectives since most of the people who come looking for services are people of color.

Johnson-Alfano has come a long way and accomplished incredible things since the day when she moved in with her grandmother and has the law degree and shoes to prove it.

For more information on how SJH and how to get involved, please visit