Mariah Johnson is cheerful, friendly and skilled with her hands — having the ability to quickly fashion a balloon into the shape of a poodle while carrying on a conversation.

What the 21-year-old Duluth Heights woman doesn’t have is a group of friends.

“People are always friendly to her,” said her mom, Teresa Johnson. “But she didn’t make connections because they’re not like her and she’s not like them, and there’s a social thing with that.”

The barrier for Mariah, her mother said, is her disabilities, even though they are on the mild side. She was diagnosed early in life with mild autism and cognitive disabilities. Although she graduated from Lakeview Christian Academy, Mariah reads at a level that’s somewhere between sixth and eighth grade, Teresa said, and writes at a first- or second-grade level.

Mariah Johnson at her mom Teresa Johnson pose for a portrait in their home on July 30. Teresa hopes to start a group for differently abled young people to do activities together and form friendships. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Mariah Johnson at her mom Teresa Johnson pose for a portrait in their home on July 30. Teresa hopes to start a group for differently abled young people to do activities together and form friendships. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

She also has a phonological speech disorder, meaning she’s not able to articulate all the sounds needed to speak clearly. In a conversation, it seemed like the “r” sound was getting lost. It made her a little difficult to understand, particularly since she tends to speak in rapid, excited bursts.

“Grandma always says, ‘Slow down. Slow down,’” Mariah related with the sunny demeanor that seems to mark everything about her.

Perhaps it’s Mariah’s many interests that make it hard for her to slow down. She lives in a house on Central Entrance with her mom and dad, Steve Johnson; an older sister, a younger sister, two younger brothers, a dog named Mater and Charlie McCarthy.

The latter is a dummy. Mariah became fascinated with ventriloquism a few years ago through a Kaleidoscope program at the Duluth Public Library and is a fan of the classic Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy movies.

In addition to fashioning creations from balloons, Mariah makes and sells wire art and draws cartoons, although she needs help with the wording for her characters.

But her limitations may mask all that Mariah has to offer.

After detailing Mariah’s reading and writing shortcomings, Teresa added, “But her intellect is much higher than that. And her love for people is much greater than that.”

People love her back. Mariah was loved by her school community, her mother said. But she was different from those around her, and she made only one friendship that lasted beyond high school. But while she’s grateful for that friendship, Teresa said she thinks her daughter needs a larger social group.

There are social groups for young adults with disabilities in the Twin Ports. For example, Access North offers its “Game of Life” group four times a year, meeting every other Monday over eight weeks.

“The purpose of the group is to meet people and to learn basic social skills just through being with each other,” said Amanda Crosby, who has co-led the Game of Life group for eight years.

At an initial pizza night, the group decides for itself what it wants its activities to be, Crosby said.

Mariah Johnson hopes to meet people her age with similar interests. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Mariah Johnson hopes to meet people her age with similar interests. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Age of the participants is somewhat flexible but lately has been ranging from 18 to 30, Crosby said, and typically it totals eight to 15 people. Many attend on their own; those with more significant disabilities can be accompanied by a personal care assistant.

Being part of the group is free; the only cost is if the group chooses an event that costs money, such as a movie. But no one is turned away because they can’t pay, Crosby said.

Game of Life has led to lasting friendships, including a group of women who get together regularly for coffee, Crosby said.

Arc Northland also has social groups, said Laurie Berner, the executive director. People First, a group for all ages, meets on the first Wednesday of each month, with a goal of helping people with disabilities to become strong self-advocates. Young Adult Club originally was for individuals with fetal alcohol syndrome, she said, but has been expanded for adults with any disabilities.

Still, Crosby said, she hears from people wondering when Game of Life will meet again, reflecting the limited opportunities.

“We have one guy who said this is his only social outlet right now, which is kind of sad,” Crosby said.

Teresa Johnson has explored social options on behalf of her daughter but hasn’t found anything that seemed to fit, she said. So she’s trying to form a group on her own. Titled Cross Town Friends, it’s for adults ages 18 to 25 with mild cognitive disabilities “for friendship, active entertainment, conversation and shared interests and hobbies,” she wrote in an outline for the group.

Initially at least, the group will be for women only, Teresa said, and will be purely a social group.

“My goal isn’t to be a matchmaker place,” she said. “My goal is to make and build lasting friendships. And so that’s why I believe it’s important to start off with females and building relationships. And eventually we can open it up to others.”

Mariah Johnson spends time in her room drawing on July 31. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Mariah Johnson spends time in her room drawing on July 31. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Her vision goes beyond that. She’s already exploring the possibility of forming a nonprofit and opening an ice cream shop where group members could serve customers and perhaps sell crafts on the side.

Moreover, Teresa envisions homes where young adults with disabilities could live together. She sees that as different from the standard group home, but realizes there might be difficulty convincing government officials of that.

A statewide moratorium on corporate foster care and community residential-setting development remains in effect, said Terry A. McCabe, division director for home and community-based services with St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services. About 300 such homes are licensed in St. Louis County, she said.

Teresa acknowledges she hasn’t visited all of those group homes.

“I know there are fabulous homes out there,” she said. “I’m not sure (they’re) for people with very mild disabilities, like hers. … So I don’t know what’s all out there. But I haven’t found anything that would be a good fit for her at this time.”

For now, the goal is to start with a friendship group. Teresa said she has no doubt that there are other young adults besides Mariah who could benefit from such a group. Just last week, she said, she bumped into a friend from high school with a son in similar circumstances and in need of connections with peers.

Teresa has had this idea in mind for a while. A year ago, she placed fliers in various places announcing the formation of Cross Town Friends. When she checked later, she found some of the slips with her phone number had been torn off. But she never got a call.

She’s hoping exposure here will draw more interest. She’s in it for the long haul, thinking about Mariah’s future.

“She’s got us, but we’re not always going to be there for her,” Teresa said. “We’re a very adventurous family. We do a lot of family vacations every year. You know, we experience life to the fullest.

“But she won’t always have us, and she needs friends.”

To learn more

  • To learn more about Cross Town Friends: crosstownfriends@gmail.com

  • The schedule for the next Game of Life hasn’t been determined, but it likely will begin in September, Amanda Crosby said. To learn more about it, call 218-625-1440

  • To learn more about People First and Young Adult Club via Arc Northland, call 218-726-4725

Events this week

Arc Northland has two social events taking place this week:

  • Arc Northland’s annual Neighborhood Night Out picnic will be from 5 to 7 p.m. today (Tuesday, Aug. 6) at the Great Lakes Aquarium. Food and aquarium admission included. $5 in advance; $10 at the door. To RSVP, call 218-726-4725. Parking is free; specify that you’re attending the Arc Northland family picnic.

  • People First meets from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Ordean Building, 424 W. Superior St., featuring performance artist Gaelynn Lea.