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‘We Inspire Each Other’

Speaker, Students Offer Lessons in Overcoming Disabilities

Johnny Agar and Duncan Lake Middle School sixth-grader Dakota Tomac share a unique perspective on grit and working to reach their goals.

“I have CP (cerebral palsy) like him,” said Dakota. “I have a lot of dreams in my life.”

Agar, a senior at Aquinas College, first met Dakota at the Grand Rapids-based Conductive Learning Center. The program serves people from birth to age 26 who have motor disorders related to complications of prematurity, including cerebral palsy. Dakota was in the center’s early childhood program when he met Johnny, who has seen him become stronger and more confident.

“He’s making strides. I’m just so proud of him,” Agar said. “We inspire each other. It’s awesome to be pals with him.”

He had just finished sharing his own story about accomplishing a major goal during a visit in Dakota’s class as a guest speaker. Agar’s visit culminated a weeklong lesson in empathy, with tied-in themes of respect and courage, in teacher Becky Bravata’s class.

Dakota Tomac, left, and Tucker Dion have been friends for years. “He’s my grit mascot,” Tucker said.

Past the Finish Line

Agar, 23, is the son of Becki and Jeff Agar, who pitched for three seasons in minor league baseball as a Detroit Tigers prospect. Johnny was born prematurely at 29 weeks and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors said he may never walk or talk, but Johnny has done much more than that.

Agar, like his dad, loves baseball and other sports, but couldn’t play like other children. He has a close bond with his father, who in the summer of 2009 started running while pushing Johnny in a wheelchair. Together they began competing in marathons and triathlons.

In the summer of 2013, the son decided to give his father a break in pushing him. During a 5K race in Rockford, they stopped at the two-mile mark, picked up Johnny’s walker, and step by step, Agar walked the remaining mile across the finish line. The race was featured in a 2013 profile by ESPN. Here is Johnny’s Story.

Since then, Agar has served as an inspiration for many, including students at Northview High School. Becki recreated a video featuring Michael Phelps to star her son, and Under Armour used it in a TV spot.

Duncan Lake uses the character-building program, TrueSuccess, which focuses on the development of traits including respect, wisdom, thankfulness, self-control, perseverance, responsibility, encouragement, caring and integrity. The program highlights life stories, and selected Agar as their LifeStory for Courage, said the program’s implementation specialist Austin Reibel, whose son, Luke, is in the Duncan Lake class.

Preceding Agar’s visit was another activity tied to TrueSuccess initiated by Bravata. Six students per day that week spent an entire school day in wheelchairs. Along with Dakota, another student in the class, Faith Aversano, also uses a wheelchair, and Bravata wanted students to experience what life is like for them.

“I really wanted to give them an awareness for helping people out,” Bravata said.

Students realized what it takes to use a wheelchair in opening lockers, maneuvering through doors and keeping up with others. “It gave me a totally different perspective on what it’s like for people in wheelchairs,” said Luke Riebel.

Johnny Agar and Dakota Tomac, who both have cerebral palsy, have gotten to know each other at the Conductive Learning Center

‘The Person You Are Going to Be’

Agar, who is majoring in sports management and business at Aquinas, said the message that he hopes resounds with students is about facing life’s obstacles, no matter what they are.

“You are going to have challenges in life and some challenges are going to get the best of you,” he told them. “It’s how you deal with those challenges that will have the impact on the person you are going to be.”

Faith Aversano, who has spina bifida, said she can relate to Agar’s words.

“When I was younger I didn’t think I would be able to do anything,” she said. “Now that I’ve discovered all these sports, like wheelchair basketball, I figured out things are possible.”

Students learned yet another lesson from Agar and Dakota: talk to people who have physical challenges like you would anyone else. “I’ve been talked to like a little baby before and I don’t like it at all,” Dakota said.

Student Tucker Dion summed up the experience this way: “Treat others like you want to be treated if you were in their shoes.”


SNN story about communication devices used by Caledonia student with cerebral palsy

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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