Tonja Johnson was born in Lakeland, Florida, to James and Judy Dink. Like anyone else, she wanted a perfect life, free of any ailments. That didn’t happen.
In 2013, Tonja was diagnosed with vitiligo. Christian Nordqvist of Medical News Today defined vitiligo as a long-term problem in which growing patches of skin lose their color. It can affect people of any age, gender, or ethnic group. He goes on to say, “The patches appear when melanocytes within the skin die off. Melanocytes are the cells responsible for producing the skin pigment, melanin, which gives skin its color and protects it from the sun’s UV rays. Globally, it appears to affect between 0.5 and 2 percent of people.” (Nordqvist, C. 2017 September 26. Understanding the Symptoms of Vitiligo. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/245081.php)
Tonja’s diagnosis came when she had very few white patches on her skin. As the year progressed, the white patches increased. She remembers searching for local support groups but couldn’t any throughout the state of Florida. Not wanting to be dismayed, she reached out to nationally known vitiligo support groups such as Vitiligo Bond in Atlanta (Mrs. Natasha Pierre-McCarthy) and VITfriends in Boston (Mrs. Valerie Molyneaux). After some encouragement from these ladies, she started working on creating her own vitiligo support group in Florida.
Beautifully Unblemished Vitiligo Support Group
On March 31, 2018, Beautifully Unblemished Vitiligo Support Group launched with over 35 people in attendance. Of the 35 people in attendance, three were affected by Vitiligo. Striving for more, Tonja attended the World Vitiligo Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, outside of Boston from June 22-24, 2018. She commented, “What an awesome experience of walking in a room filled with individuals looking just like me. The feeling was overwhelming in such a positive way. I was placed on the agenda to introduce Beautifully Unblemished Vitiligo Support Group during the opening ceremonies. I was very proud to be a part of such a wonderful family.”
For two years Tonja covered her disease with make-up. When I asked her about this, she answered, “The day I chose to stop covering up was the most freeing time of my life. I felt those two years of covering up were like I was hiding who I really was. I was tired of applying make-up each day, and this Florida heat can be so disrespectful at times. Once I uncovered, I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I could finally embrace who I was with vitiligo.”
To Tonja, it no longer mattered anymore what people thought, how they stared, or how people pointed at her every time she was out in the public eye. She wants to tell everyone affected by vitiligo that they can embrace who they are and not be concerned with what people think. She wants them to know that they are beautiful.
Tonja works in a professional setting. She faces the public seven days a week. She was faced with embracing her vitiligo or living a life of seclusion. She chose to embrace vitiligo and let it know it was not going to dictate her future. She decided to take a stand.
Once she took a stand, she received overwhelming encouraging words from family, friends, and complete strangers. She said, “It was an awesome experience to receive all the kind words and motivation.” She went on to say, “Taking off the mask let people know I don’t have to hide anymore.” Tonja wants to tell everyone to take her for who she is. She is very proud of shedding the mask and encourages everyone who has vitiligo to do the same. She quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.”
Achieving Career Goals Even With Vitiligo
Tonja’s life with vitiligo certainly has not stopped her from achieving her career goals. She currently works as the Dental Director for the Florida Department of Health, Polk County. In this capacity, she oversees four major dental clinics. She also plans to retire within the next 10 years so that she can continue to empower and inspire individuals, both adults and children, with vitiligo. She wants to advance the mission of educating and bringing awareness to our nation and the world about vitiligo.
When asked what she would tell those affected by vitiligo, Tonja answered, “You are not alone. There’s a family of vitiligans out here, and we are passionate about vitiligo. We want to offer our support to you by way of support groups, dermatologist, research for a cure, and counseling. As I end, remember this quote by Positive Exposure, ‘Change how you see; see how you change.’”
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