Bridgton author embarks on ‘Mish’-ion Possible

NOT SHY ABOUT IT — Dressed as Mish the Mushroom Man, holding his sidekick Snee the Snail, Cheryl Johnson gets in the spirit for her planned 40-mile walk to Portland on Sunday to raise funds to help keep a lien from being placed on her home by a college loan company.

NOT SHY ABOUT IT — Dressed as Mish the Mushroom Man, holding his sidekick Snee the Snail, Cheryl Johnson gets in the spirit for her planned 40-mile walk to Portland on Sunday to raise funds to help keep a lien from being placed on her home by a college loan company.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

In only 12 months, she’s published 10 books. In only 12 hours, she’ll walk 40 miles, from her hometown of Bridgton to Portland, outfitted head-to-toe like a giant mushroom, carrying helium balloons and a big pink stuffed snail.

Nothing exceeds the imagination of Cheryl Johnson. Even though she’s 59 and nearing retirement age, this author and illustrator of the Mish the Mushroom Man series of children’s books tackles life’s challenges with gusto and a childlike enthusiasm.

This Sunday, Sept. 21, at 4 a.m., Johnson will begin her walk on Route 302 and won’t stop until she arrives at her alma mater, the Maine College of Art on Congress Street. Her purpose is more than simply self-promoting; it’s driven also by desperation over defaulting college loans whose lender, Sallie Mae, is now threatening to take her home.

Friends and family have to date pledged a total of around $50 per mile for Sunday’s walk, which should give her enough money, she says, “to keep Sallie Mae off my back for another year, while I get my career in full swing.” At the same time, Johnson hopes her walk, which she calls her “Mish-ion Possible,” will raise awareness about “the continuing struggles of college graduates paying back outrageously high student loans.”

As a single mother supporting four children, Johnson enrolled at MECA in 1993 at age 38, hoping to better her life and make a living through her art. She worked full-time and attended classes for seven years before earning a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in 2000. She planned to work two jobs for a few years after graduation to pay down as much of her student loans as possible, but within a few months after graduating, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She had no choice but to take a hardship deferment to deal with her illness, she said. By the time she was able to start paying on the loans, it wasn’t long before the 9¾% college loan interest rate made it hard to make the payments.

“Not much of the $400 each month ever touched the principle” over two years of making regular payments, Johnson said. Then she lost her primary job. “I now owe $60,000 more than when I graduated in 2000,” she said. Her college loan payments are now over $700 a month, and Johnson said it will now take her until she is 90 years old to pay off the loan.

“I’ve worked as a cake decorator, a waitress, a cook, a child care provider and in retail. I cannot make enough money from these sorts of jobs to ever pay off my loans before I die,” said Johnson. Meanwhile, her heart, her training, and her best hope for financial security lies with her books, which have received strong favorable reviews. She has sold over 1,000 books so far, mostly by word of mouth, through Amazon.com and Bridgton Books. She has two more books in the works, and in her mind, it’s the only way she’ll ever realize her dream of being debt-free.

She knows some people might look askance at her idea of doing a pledge walk to raise money, but she said, “I have decided enough is enough. I believe in myself, my hard work, my talents, and I am prepared to do whatever I need to do in order to resolve this debt. The loan corporation has been threatening to place a lien on my home of almost 30 years. I don’t want to live with this hanging over me like the Sword of Damocles any longer. With help, I believe I can do this.”

Anyone who would like to support Johnson with her walk, by pledging pennies or dollars a mile, may contact her at 647-8377, or via e-mail at cerosj@yahoo.com. She also will have coffee and donuts for those who would like to see her off at 4 a.m. on Sunday from her home at 31 South High Street.

For more information on her books (her 10th and newest, The Rescue of Snee, is now available), visit her website at www.mishandfriends.com

 

 

 

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