Disabled mom walks to Bridge to inspire son

September 13, 2013

By Pat Maurer

9-13-13 Tonya Willman and son Joey (1)Tonya Willman, of Clare, is walking to the Mackinac Bridge.

Not literally though. Tonya is walking the approximately 144 miles in a half-mile walk a day – on her treadmill.

She is doing it despite severe disabilities as a gift for her son Joey, who is now a senior at Clare High School, to help him cope with the very demanding Marine boot camp he is facing next June.

“My oldest son Ryan said ‘Marine boot camp was the hardest thing I ever had to do.’ I told him to remember what I went through when I first got out of the hospital and had to learn how to walk again. If I could do it, so could he.”

It has been a long, hard road back for Tonya. She had a stroke in 2002 at just 31 years old, complicated by a blood clot on the brain. “She was in a coma for nearly 24 hours,” said husband Jeff, who is also disabled. “They told us she wouldn’t live.”
It was a surprise to the family when she woke up. “They told my family there was nothing they could do and that I wouldn’t live through it – I did though.” She continued, “When I came out of the coma, I was amazed at how many people had been praying for me. It restored my faith.”

Tonya was an active mom before this happened. The family moved to Clare from Davison in 1994. She worked in pre-school and Early Head Start and coached Youth Soccer for five years.

Sons Ryan and Joey were twelve and eight years old when she had the stroke. “It was hard for them. They had to grow up very fast and take on many of my responsibilities. Sometimes I feel like I robbed them of their childhood.”

They don’t feel that way though. Ryan is back home and working in the community after his time in the Corps.

“The boys are starting a new family tradition,” said Jeff, a Navy man. Joey, who said he is “very excited” about following in his brother’s footsteps and going in the Marines next year, added, “I’m proud of my mom.” He added, “She will be encouraging for me when I’m in boot camp.”

After years of therapy, Tonya still doesn’t have any use of her left arm and because of the weakness in her left leg, she uses a wheelchair. But she said she can walk with a cane. “I’m slow on the treadmill,” she said, “I can do a half mile in about 45 minutes, and sometimes it is hard, but I try to do it each day.” She usually walks for six days and takes one day off a week.”
Tonya started her trek in July and has already gone 22 miles. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but I will get there,” she said.
She added, “I try to keep myself as active as possible.”

Despite therapy every week and the daily struggle with pain, she is still active in the community. She works at “Made with Loving Hands,” an arts and crafts consignment gift shop in downtown Clare, every Thursday. She is also on the Clare County Arts Council and the Clare Parks and Recreation Board and is an active member of the Clare United Methodist Church.

“When I came out of the coma I made myself a ‘bucket list’,” She said.

“One goal was to be more involved and have my sons involved in the church. We have done that. Another was to fly on a plane. Last year at 41 years old I went on my first jet when I flew to Las Vegas.”

“Another item on my list was to work on my typing,” she continued. Part of that goal was to publish a book, and that too has been accomplished. “Windows of My Soul,” a book of her own poetry was self-published last March and is available on amazon.com.

She said, “Another item on my bucket list was to not take things for granted. Even simple things like tying my shoes and zipping up my coat. I never imagined as an adult I would be asking my kids to do these things for me.”

And, she still has some things on the list. She wants to see the ocean and go to a renaissance festival someday. There’s no doubt that this amazing woman will do these too.

“I don’t like to be told that I can’t do something,” she said, “although sometimes I overdo it because of that. My son Ryan said I gave him that attitude. He said, “It’s what got me through boot camp.”

Husband Jeff added, “My only job around here is to make sure she doesn’t overdo it. Sometimes that is pretty hard.”

The Willmans are an amazing family who have turned terrible adversity into something positive. Jeff has his own struggle to face. After four back surgeries, he is facing another, for a previous back injury. Despite constant pain, he helps Tonya a much as he can with her day-to-day struggles.

“My favorite quote,” said Tonya, “is ‘Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It is about dancing in the rain’.”

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