Blind GMU graduate achieves his dream

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010; B01

Long before sunrise Friday, Mario Bonds was on the second floor of his home in Bowie, ironing a green graduation gown, fitting his cap and talking to his guide dog, an English Lab named Sidney, about how special the day was going to be.

"You are going to walk across that stage. It is time to go to work," Bonds, 22, said as he sprinted down a flight of steps and grabbed his dog's harness in preparation for the trek to George Mason University to receive his bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism.

But Bonds, who is blind, forgot one important thing. In his excitement, he had not closed the door of a downstairs closet, and he crashed into it. Janice Dupree, one of Bonds's "two mothers," couldn't resist calling him a "big baby."

His graduation was the proud culmination of a struggle that began in infancy.

Bonds is a triplet in a family of 10 children. His mother died of a brain aneurysm when he was 5 months old. His father has been in prison most of the father's life.

Bonds was born with morning glory syndrome, a disease that attacks the optic nerve, and went blind when he was 8. He has been shuttled among emergency shelters, cheap motels, public housing and, finally, the home offered by the Duprees, the parents of a high school classmate.

Despite his hardships, Bonds has been a leader. When he was at Suitland High School, in Prince George's County, he served as a counselor and teacher during a technology summer camp by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. He is an accomplished singer and piano player who has more than 1 million hits on YouTube.

"Our family was quite destitute all my life, so I used education and music to deal with the dysfunction," he said.

As Bonds waited for a cab to Bethesda -- where his other "mother," retired Fairfax County teacher Michele Weil, would take him to GMU's Patriot Center -- he summarized his feeling in Sarah McLachlan's song "Angel."

"You are pulled from the wreckage, of your silent reverie, you're in the arms of the angel, may you find some comfort here," he sang in a strong tenor.

Bonds credits his grandmother, Johnnie Mae Bonds, for not allowing him to be placed in a special school. In a 2004 Washington Post story she said, "He don't have a disability. . . . He's blind. He has a good brain."

About five years ago, Dupree took in the Bonds triplets, Mario and his two sisters. Her son had told her about a young man in the high school choir who didn't have a place to stay. She said that although the sisters stayed for about two weeks, their brother remained because he wanted stability in his senior year.

"It has been a struggle," Dupree said. "When he first moved here, he suffered from headaches, which were due from stress."

Weil had met Bonds years earlier, when his family moved to Fairfax County, and she became his mobility instructor, teaching him to use a cane and walk with a guide dog. "They were homeless and moved into a hotel. He called me from the Breezeway Motel," Weil said.

One day in middle school, Bonds and other blind students went to the campus of George Mason on a field trip. "From age 12, I knew that this was going to be my school," Bonds said.

Although Bonds doesn't have his immediate family, he has developed a support network that includes MetroAccess drivers, taxi drivers, friends and a few cousins.

In addition to making good on his GMU dream, he is a program assistant in the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Transportation. He also is the minister of music at Mt. Zion-Warren United Methodist Church in Dickerson.

On Friday, Bonds never stopped smiling as he and Sidney walked across the stage at GMU; 13 of his relatives were in the audience.

Bonds said that although he has "a small amount of bitterness" because he can't see, it is overcome by joy. "It's emotional to me, because 85 percent of working-age blind adults are unemployed. It is a big deal to me that more than 50 percent of blind high school students don't graduate or go to college," he said.

"The bitterness stems from how difficult this has been because there are still problems with the level of services the visually impaired still get," Bonds said. "I had to work through those problems but at the same time trying to make sure I got adequate grades to get to this day."

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