Blind ‘Glee Project’ star reunites with father

Before Mario Bonds lost his sight, he watched his father being handcuffed and taken to jail.

Born with Morning Glory syndrome, a disease that attacks the optic nerve, and motherless since infancy, Bonds, then 8, was so filled with anger and despair that he sat down on the curb and stared directly into the white glare of a police-car headlight.

“It hurt so bad to see them take my dad. I wanted to be totally blind. I just didn’t want to see anymore,” Bonds said.

At 9, he got his wish.

Although Bonds had given up on his life, his grandmother hadn’t. Johnnie Mae Bonds had faith that the little boy who spent so much time making music on pots and pans with a spoon would grow up to be somebody. And young Bonds did, singing and playing the piano and guitar in church through his years at Suitland High School and later in college at George Mason University,where he graduated in 2010 with a major in journalism. Earlier this summer, he revealed his talents to the nation as a contestant on the hit reality show “The Glee Project,” on the Oxygen Network.

After his stint on the show ended, Bonds flew home to worship last Sunday at Refuge Temple Church in Northeast Washington, the national headquarters of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ Apostolic.

Bonds attended Refuge Temple as a boy with his grandmother, but this time she was not with him. This time, Bonds’s father sat next to him in the pew.

One of 10 children and one in a set of triplets, Bonds was raised mostly by his grandmother after his mother died of a brain aneurysm when he was 5 months old. Bonds was shuttled with his large family between emergency shelters, motels and public housing before he was taken in as a teenager by Janice Dupree, whose son had told her about a friend in the choir who didn’t have a steady place to live. Through it all, Bonds’s reputation as a singer and pianist grew in the District’s black church community.

“I am where I am today because of the power of prayer,” said Bonds, 24.

After graduating from George Mason, Bonds was working as a program assistant for the U.S. Department of Transportation when he learned about the “Glee Project” opportunity from Michele Weil, the retired Fairfax County teacher and mobility instructor who helped Bonds learn to navigate as a blind person.

But in many ways, Bonds was a perfect fit for “Project,” a summer reality show spinoff of the “Glee” television show in which participants compete to be part of the “Glee” cast for the next season.

“The ‘Glee Project’ celebrates the underdog, and me being blind and black, I am already considered an underdog,” Bonds said. “It was like God was talking to me.”

Bonds auditioned for “Project” online and then again at the New York City open casting call, where he was first among 80 finalists. Weil and a mutual friend, Karen Blass, accompanied Bonds to New York.

The number of contestants was gradually whittled down to 14 — seven women and seven men, including Bonds, who danced, sang and played the piano during the show until his dream ground to a halt July 5.

Bonds and the remaining nine contenders were challenged on their “adaptability.” They were prepared to sing “You Oughta Know,” by Alanis Morissette,” but once in the studio the producers abruptly told them that they would be singing “Price Tag” by Jessie J — with no time to practice. By the end of the night, host Ryan Murphy told Bonds that he was going home.

But Bonds calls the experience “a huge career launcher.”

“I am glad that the audience got to see my talent. I am just praying that this is the beginning of my career.” Bonds said he has been in contact with several record labels in hopes of landing a contract.

Robert J. Ulrich, the casting director for “Glee,” had nothing but praise for Bonds . “He is an amazing human being,” Ulrich said. “He has a beautiful voice. When he got on the ‘Glee Project,’ I said, ‘I can’t believe this person can’t see.’ Being blind never became an issue.”

Watching her grandson on the show from her new home in Greenville, N.C., Johnnie Mae Bonds, was also impressed — and proud.

“I knew he would do something. It was in him from a little boy when he would get my pots and pans and beat on them with a spoon,” she said.

In June, Bonds was watching television in Los Angeles, where he was about to begin taping, when he received a call from his father. Norman Bonds had just been released after 15 years in prison.

“I said, ‘Hello. Who is this?’ and the guy said, ‘I am your father,’ ” Bonds recalls. “My heart dropped.” The elder Bonds told his son that he read comments online from people who had been inspired by Bonds’s success making the show. “It makes me feel good to have a son like you,” Bonds said his father told him.

Then the man apologized for not being there while his son was growing up. “It was overwhelming. I said I would have to call him back. I hung up the phone and I bitterly cried,” Bonds said.

Bonds talked with his father by phone a few more times while he was in L.A., but the conversations were difficult.

“It was hard because the little boy in me always wanted to hear my dad say something like that,” Bonds said. “Part of me was crying, but the adult in me said, ‘Why now?’ The timing was hard.”

Last weekend, Bonds flew back to visit friends and family in the District and attend services at Refuge Temple, where he was honored for his accomplishments by Bishop W. Michael Fields, the church’s pastor. Bonds’s sister, Olethia Bonds, watched, as did his older brother, Tedrick.

As Bonds sat in a pew at the start of the service, his father walked into the church. The men found each other and embraced. The elder Bonds sat down with his son and later guided him as he passed the collection plate.

“I have never gone to church with my dad in my life, but I am ready for complete forgiveness,” Bonds said after the three-hour service filled with songs of praise and joy.

The elder Bonds, who lives in Alexandria, said he hopes to finally get to know his son.

Sure, he wishes that things had been different. “But I am grateful for the time we spend together. . . . I am very proud of [my son],” he said.

After the sermon, Bonds came up for prayer and Fields anointed his head with olive oil. So much determination in the face of adversity, the pastor said. So much faith in God during hard times.

The next day, Bonds flew back to Hollywood to continue pursuing his dream.

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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