Two years ago, 24-year-old Mario Bonds was living what he calls “Plan B.” Working for the federal government in the Department of Transportation, Bonds was trying desperately to be happy. But the Lanham native said he was more interested in “Plan A”: pursuing his dream of performing.
“I always believed that I was born to entertain,” Bonds said. “I was not enjoying ‘Plan B.’”
Life is a little different for Bonds these days. After landing a spot on the second season of Oxygen’s “The Glee Project,” where young aspiring actors and musicians compete for a role on the hit television show, Bonds now splits his time between Maryland, New York and Los Angeles, actively seeking a record deal.
On Friday, he’ll headline a benefit concert at Imagination Stage in Bethesda in support of the company’s Access and Inclusion programs for students with disabilities.
“This is an agenda companies across the board need to embrace,” said Bonds of Imagination Stage’s inclusion programs. “I am an example of someone who would benefit from [these programs]. The best thing I can do ... is help their efforts.”
Bonds has been totally blind since he was 9, the result of Morning Glory Syndrome, a rare defect of the optic nerve.
“Most of the time, I’m extremely content and happy with my situation,” Bonds said. “The people in my life made sure I got to the right place and did not use my total blindness as an excuse.”
One of those people is his grandmother, Johnnie Mae Bonds, who took in Bonds, a triplet, and his two sisters after their mother passed away when they were just 5 months old. At the time, Johnnie Mae already had custody of seven of her other grandchildren, the oldest of which was just 12 years old.
“I had a pretty tumultuous childhood,” Bonds said.
With his grandmother responsible for so many children, Bonds said he and his sisters bounced from home to home, sometimes even living in motels.
“... I lived in a place where family was dysfunctional and abusive [and] going through it from the blind-side multiplies everything,” Bonds said.
But Bonds said Johnnie Mae never let his blindness stand in the way of his success, especially when it came to getting an education. After administrators in the public school system told her she may want to consider sending Bonds to a school for the blind, Johnnie Mae insisted her grandson remain in the mainstream classrooms.
“My grandmother fought,” Bonds said. “[She said], ‘There’s nothing wrong with Mario’s brain. He’s real smart, he’s just blind,’ This is a woman who only made it to eighth grade. She believed in me.”
She wasn’t the only one.
There was Michelle Weil, an orientation and mobility specialist in Fairfax County who got Bonds his first piano lesson. There was Beverly Betz-Zachery, a vision teacher in Prince George’s County who was present through what Bonds called a “blind kid’s rebellion.”
“She was there ... when I didn’t want to read braille; when I threw my cane at my first instructor,” Bonds said.
Thanks to the support of his loved ones, along with “God, fate and perseverance,” Mario graduated from George Mason University in 2010.
But there were others along the way who doubted Bonds’ abilities.
“While I was working for the Department of Transportation,” I went to a talent agency in Baltimore,” Bonds said. “I sang my heart out, did voice-over stuff and at the end, the guy goes, ‘You should already be famous, but I can’t work with you because you’re too much work. You’re a special case.’ Pretty much what he was saying was, ‘I’ve never worked with anyone who is blind before.’”
Casting directors for “The Glee Project” agreed. Mario was a “special case.” And they couldn’t wait to work with him.
“They said, ‘It never mattered that you were blind,” Bonds said.
And it didn’t. Bonds was one of 14 contestants chosen from a pool of 50,000 who auditioned. Despite his blindness, he had no trouble picking up choreography.
“I was pinching myself to see like, ‘OK, am I really here, totally blind and doing the dance steps with all of my peers?’” Bonds said. “Moments like that [were] what really made the feeling so surreal.”
Last year, Imagination Stage awarded Mario the Imagination Award at the 2012 Annual Gala and Silent Auction. The award recognizes professionals in the arts or humanities whose leadership in the community represents the principles Imagination Stage hopes to instill in children.
On Friday, Bonds will share the spotlight with Imagination Stage’s high school musical theater students. Among the songs on the set list is Katy Perry’s “Firework,” a song Bond’s said served as a source of inspiration when he was living “Plan B” two years back.
“The lyrics of that song, ‘You don’t have to feel, like a waste of space ...’ those lyrics spoke volumes to me when I was broken two years ago,” Bonds said. “Those are powerful words.”