BY ABBY CARNEVALE // MAY 12, 2016 //
Watching freshman Angela Johns play defense with her Curry lacrosse teammates is a sight to see. However, it’s something her mother, Shelley, has yet to experience.
Shelley Johns was born blind, the result of her own mother acquiring a parasitic disease called toxoplasmosis while pregnant with her. The toxoplasma parasite is often found in cat feces and contaminated food; Shelley’s mothers got it from changing a cat litter box. Fortunately, toxoplasmosis is not genetic. Shelley is the only individual in her family who is blind.
But the disability rarely held her back. Throughout her life she has used a cane and guide dogs to get around. As a teen Shelley worked at Pizza Hut and was on her high school’s cheerleading squad. Her instructors would stand in the cheering positions, Shelley would feel the way they were standing, and then mimic it. Shelley went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in music at Capitol University in Columbia, Ohio, plays piano and the French horn, and has even released a song.
Johns’s parents got divorced when she was in the first grade. She lived with Shelley in Ohio for a number of years, but moved in with her biological father in Burrillville, R.I., for high school. When Johns was 17 years old, her mother moved to New Jersey with a friend to be closer to the family. Johns has two older brothers, and one younger sister.
Johns says she and her siblings are extremely close, due to the many years working together to fulfill their mother’s needs. But Shelley also took care of their needs as well. For example, she routinely made healthy, home-cooked meals, and washed and dried the family’s laundry.
“Somehow she manages to separate the lights from the darks,” says Johns with a laugh. “I don’t know how, and I don’t ask.”
Johns says there were a few drawbacks from having a blind mother.
“It’s difficult to accept compliments,” Johns states. She says she has a hard time believing certain praise because her mother constantly told her while growing up that she was pretty. But “I don’t make ugly kids,” Shelley says with a laugh.
Another downside is that Johns had to repeat the first grade because she didn’t know how to read. Newly divorced, Shelley signed Johns and her siblings up for the local Big Brother, Big Sister program in Ohio, and they spent countless hours at the library learning how.
Shelley also lists that as one of her regrets. Others include her inability to see her daughters’ prom dresses, or the drawings her children worked so hard on coloring when they were younger. But on the big stuff, the things that truly matter in the life of a family, things simply worked.
Johns and her family did loads of activities together—they just did it with a twist. Whether they were all going for a bike ride or going rollerblading, Shelley was right by their side participating. On rollerblades, she would simply hold onto Johns’s belt loop and rollerblade with her kids. And Johns and her siblings would crush soda cans and place them on the back of their tires so their mother could follow the sound.
In fact, Johns credits her mother for much of her own character and success. Because of the outsized responsibilities Johns had at such a young age, she says she matured a lot faster than her peers. From writing checks in the fourth grade, to walking to school by herself, Johns wanted to do everything she could to assist her mom.
Such maturity and hard work continues to be on display. Johns, a biology major, is a freshman walk-on on the Curry lacrosse team and saw playing time this season after a starter got injured. She played in seven games, and started two. But whether she was sprinting to a ground ball at practice or marking up on her player to prevent a goal, Johns always gave it her all.
And throughout her lacrosse career, she was always proud to see her mother in the stands cheering her on with the other parents. Shelley would often bring a friend—who was also blind—to “watch” her daughter play and share in the experience. Shelley says her favorite part about going to her kids’ games was hearing their names announced on the PA system.
When Johns was younger, she says she didn’t have to learn about or adapt to her mother’s blindness. It was simply normal to her; it’s all she ever knew. It wasn’t unusual that Shelley put bells on her kids’ shoes when they were young so she could know where they were. Or that Johns likes to lovingly tease her mom, like removing the straw from her mother’s drink. Theirs is a special bond unlike many.
“Anyone can have children,” says Johns, “but not everyone can raise them.”