Many people believe that we’re all put on this earth for a reason.
When Johnson Simon of Indianapolis, Indiana, was growing up, he felt like he might have missed out on having a true purpose to his existence. He’d been born on Grand Turk Island with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck so tightly that doctors said he was seconds from death. He spent the first 16 days of his life in a coma, and when he finally recovered he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy is caused by an injury to the brain during fetal development or birth. The disability affects Johnson’s muscle control and posture, holding him back as a child so much that he didn’t take his first steps until he was 5. Before he became more mobile, Johnson had been unable to attend school, and he watched his older siblings move to the United States with his parents with a longing he couldn’t even verbalize for much of his childhood.
When he was finally able to join his family in the U.S., Johnson enrolled in public school, but soon became a victim of bullying for his condition.
“Going to school and walking to my class, kids would come up to me (and ask), ‘Why do you walk that way?’ And say, ‘You’re faking! Why are you faking?’ and push me down the hallway. And I’m like, ‘I’m not faking, I’m not faking. This is who I am. This is who God made me to be.'”
Since Johnson was intelligent yet still suffered from physical mobility troubles the other kids didn’t believe that there was anything wrong with him. “They’d be like, ‘No, you’re faking. Get up, get up.’ It was hard, hard to convince them (that) this is how I really walk.”
Johnson struggled through his schooling, lashing out at his loved ones in anger and frustration. The image he held of himself in his own mind — strong, capable, and free — was not the person others saw when they looked at him. By the time he was in middle school, he was so despondent that he contemplated suicide.
At age 14, though, a teacher noticed that Johnson was good at drawing. With a little bit of encouragement, the young man began to create, even winning second prize in an art competition. He suddenly realized, “This is my calling, and from that day on, I wanted to be a painter,” he said.
Johnson truly blossomed when he met his mentor Michael Tischler. Johnson’s mother worked for Michael, who ran an after-school art club where the teen learned to hone his artistic talents. Michael had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that turned into arthritis throughout his entire body, so he understood how disability can tear you down both mentally and physically.
“You might have a disability, but don’t make your disability who you are,” Michael told Johnson. He encouraged his protégé to “never give up,” a philosophy Johnson still adheres to today. After Michael helped him get into a high school program for budding artists the young man’s talents truly grew.
Now that he’s an adult, Johnson continues to overcome his disabilities each and every day. He now teaches five painting classes every week and has earned a spot as an artist-in-residence at the Stutz Business and Arts Center. He hopes to one day open his own nonprofit after-school art program, just like the one Michael used to run. Johnson says he’s finally discovered his true purpose in life: to make art and to help others discover their own talents, too.
“I see the reason why I was put on this Earth,” he said, “To discover my art talent, to show someone that the outside doesn’t describe who they are. It’s what’s on the inside.”
Johnson is a perfect example of someone who refused to let his circumstances define him. He may have to work harder to control his body than most, but he’s managed to harness his creativity and help others in the process. Who knows how many other young people will benefit from his experience now that he’s put himself in the role of mentor?
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