Community pulls together to find woman’s phone in Baltimore

Darcy Costello
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — When Emily Johanson lost her phone last month while running into an exercise class at the Movement Lab in Baltimore’s Remington, her phone company and the company that made it told her the only option to get it back would be contacting law enforcement.

Friends told her to kiss the phone goodbye and move on.

But Johanson wasn’t ready to call it quits.

Instead, the immigration attorney, together with a hospital director and a longtime resident of Southwest Baltimore’s Wilhelm Park, harnessed the power of community connections to reunite the lost phone with its owner, in what they described as a “classic ‘Smalltimore’ moment.”

Identifying and reaching those who found the phone was a circuitous path — from a last-resort phone call to a connection over trash complaints to a note left on a front door signed, “your neighbor.”

But, not long after, the family contacted through the chain of helpers happily handed over Johanson’s phone, its purple case, credit cards, ID and all, even turning down an offer for reward money.

Olivia Farrow, left, is the director of community development and engagement for Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital. Through her efforts, she found the cellphone of Emily Johanson, right, after it had been lost for days.

It reminded the women involved, they said later, that Baltimore is interconnected and residents are “not as much strangers as we think.”

“People know people everywhere,” said Mary Wilt, the fiancee of the man who found Johanson’s phone and ultimately helped return it. “Somehow, some way.”

Think it through: Early on, Johanson pinpointed an address where her phone might be, using a locator app. But her brainstorming on how to retrieve it struck out, as she ruled out approaches she deemed too confrontational or potentially unsafe. And she wanted to avoid contacting police or any other method that might escalate what she considered a small issue.

Then, a friend who’d worked at Ascension Saint Agnes, close to the Southwest Baltimore address, suggested a contact with connections in nearby neighborhoods: Olivia Farrow, the hospital’s community development and engagement officer. Johanson gave it a shot.

“She called me and, of course, I was like, ‘OK, how am I going to figure this out?’” Farrow recalled, laughing.

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Tracking down lost items isn’t part of Farrow’s typical duties, which focus more on things like projects in the community or partnering on initiatives, such as estate planning for seniors. But the phone saga was “definitely” a part of community engagement, she said later, in seeking out neighborhood connections and involving residents in solutions. And she called it meaningful that a hospital employee knew Farrow was there to make connections and help the community.

While on the phone with Johanson, Farrow pulled up the address in Wilhelm Park, which borders the hospital grounds, on Google Maps. She remembered a resident she’d interacted with a handful of times, who’d reached out about trash on a property maintained by the hospital that Farrow worked to remedy.

Reach out: Farrow knew the neighbor was active in the community — making trash complaints, for one — so she reached out and explained the situation.

Pat Shiflett took the case.

Shiflett, an 86-year-old resident who has proudly spent her whole life in the tiny neighborhood off Wilkens Avenue, wasn’t familiar with the folks at the address. She once knew everyone in the area, she said, but that changed as people moved in and out.

Still, she went to the address and knocked. And, when there was no answer, she left a note with her phone number.

That evening, Wilt called Shiflett, who called Farrow, who contacted Johanson, and the handoff was made about 10 days after the phone was lost.

“Listen, I don’t go to church, but I do believe the Lord works in mysterious ways,” Shiflett said. “Just like my connection with Olivia. Who would have ever thought that I would be able to return a favor, you know, to her?”

“There are a lot of decent people,” she added. “I love it in Baltimore, and I hope to live in this house until they carry me out feet first.”

Pay it forward: When Johanson visited the finder’s home in mid-February to pick up her phone, the couple refused her offer of reward money — telling her, in part, they’d been lucky at the casino and wanted to keep the good karma going.

Wilt explained that her fiance found the phone on top of a gas pump while out delivering for Grubhub. (Johanson thinks someone else may have picked it up from a sidewalk in Remington and dropped it off at the pump later when the cards didn’t work.) He brought the phone home and planned to mail it to her, but kept forgetting.

As soon as Wilt saw the letter on the door, she was grateful, she said. Otherwise, the couple may have mailed it to Johanson’s previous California address, based on her driver’s license.

“I’m so glad someone was able to reach out,” Wilt said. “I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”

Johanson, too, said she was grateful things worked out and felt “shocked” at how easy the community connections were made.

“There are so many people really, really invested in making these connections and being the person on their block who knows everyone, and they’ve literally spent their entire lives building those networks,” Johanson said.

“It’s … such a gift to be able to reach out to them and remember there’s so many ways like this to resolve a lot of things, things way more important than a silly lost phone.”