Local family counts their blessings and raises money tandem style

March 28, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY MARCY SHORTUSE – On a bright sunny day, Mary Johnston can catch a glimmer of light. She is very matter of fact about the fact she is blind, as it is a process that has been taking place since she was very young. She feels blessed, particularly when she thinks about others who have the same set of circumstances she does but don’t have the finances to take their lives to a higher level of comfort, or education. Most sighted people truly don’t know how expensive books and computers for the blind are, or that having those things makes all the difference in the world.

That is why Mary and her husband Dennis ride their tandem bicycle down island streets and paths, and with every mile they log they raise a little more money for the National Braille Press. From when they began on March 17 to April 19 Mary and her team have been biking and running to raise money in a sort of marathon for the organization. Each member of the team has a goal to raise $262 (26.2 miles = $262) with the commitment to walk, run, or bike “a marathon.” On average, each team member logs at least a mile a day if they are walking or running. Mary and Dennis are doing double that amount, as they are on bicycles. This week they hit the 34-mile mark, and are continuing on.

“What I’m doing with this organization, the National Braille Press, is raising money to produce more braille books for children,” she said. “This is our big push to raise funds to give books, and even computers, to blind children who can’t afford them. Normally their biggest annual fundraiser is the Boston Marathon, as they are based in Boston, but because of COVID there is no Boston Marathon. So they conceived Braille Across America, a virtual marathon.”

By the way, Mary said it’s not as easy as it looks to ride a tandem bicycle. It takes two people in tune with each other’s body weight shifts and movements, but they have traversed the entirety of Gasparilla Island over and over again.

Mary has been coming to the island since she was a baby, as her grandparents, the Sharps, and her parents, Will and Sarah Farish, have had homes here for decades. The family’s home base is in Houston, and that is where Mary found out at a very young age that she was going blind from a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa.

“They didn’t even have a name for it when I was young,” Mary said. It’s more well-known now, as a few high-profile individuals have been diagnosed with it. It’s degenerative, so I had vision as a very young child.”

By third grade Mary’s grades were suffering, and she was struggling to learn to read. There were some who thought her eyesight might be bad, but she was also given tutoring sessions to see if that would help. Finally, one day, her mother took her to a doctor who said that Mary should learn braille. She switched from a private school setting to a public school with resources with a teacher who taught her braille. 

It changed her life.

“I went from hating to read and struggling to read, to loving it,” Mary said. “I had been terrified I would be called on in class, but suddenly I went to reading everything I could get my hands on. Reading became very important to me.”

Though sighted people look at braille as hieroglyphics, Mary said it was quite easy for her to learn. 

“If someone picked you up and put you in a country where you didn’t speak the language, you would do what you had to, to learn to survive,” she said. “You learn a lot faster with the submersion method. My mom learned braille and my oldest daughter did, too, but sighted people read braille with their eyes and that’s a whole different format.”

By the time Mary was in college at the University of Virginia, her sight was almost gone. When she was approaching the age of 30, she could only see light on a bright day. 

When Mary became pregnant she realized how important it was to her to be able to read to her children. That’s when she found the National Braille Press, a company that produces books with the same pictures and printed words as the regular ones have, but these books also have vellum pages with braille. 

“When my first child was born in 1989 and before I found the National Braille Press, I was marking braille on plastic sheets of laminated paper, peeling them off and putting them in the books,” she said. “That took an inordinately long time. But it was vital for me to be able to read to my children. As my children grew and they would be learning about the senses, they would take me in for show-and-tell. My daughter is now a teacher, and I go in and read to her classroom.” 

Mary also feels blessed that none of her children, or her grandchildren, have the disease that took Mary’s sight. Several members of the family are participating in the marathon with Mary and Dennis, including her youngest daughter Maggie, who is leading the Johnston family in the competition. 

It costs about three times as much to produce a braille book as it does a regular printed book, but the National Braille Press still sells their books for the same price as the others. The shortfall is made up from donations, and that is why this race is so important.

You can go to classy.org/team/340501 to find the Johnston family team and make a donation. To learn more about the National Braille Press, go to nbp.org/.