Mariah Meredith’s Story
Elizabeth Whitley’s life was forever changed in July 1994 when she gave birth to her beautiful daughter Mariah. “She was perfect!” Just three years later, Mariah was diagnosed with Nystagmus, which causes involuntary eye movements – side to side, up and down, or in a circular pattern – making the eyes unable to hold steady on objects being viewed. “The doctor said there was a possibility there was an underlying medical condition but helped us outfit Mariah with glasses and sent us on our way.”
As a resilient child, Mariah adjusted. “With her glasses she was able to run and play and be a kid. We tried to keep her childhood as normal as possible.” Mariah began to have seizures, and her ability to walk was impacted. By fourth grade, she was using a walker and by the end of fifth grade, a wheelchair. But, still, there were no answers. Mariah was fortunate to have a great environment at school, as well. She fondly remembers a janitor who cleaned her walker wheels so they wouldn’t squeak and classmates who were more than willing to help her. When she could no longer play on the playground, Mariah spent time inside with her friend, Morgan, and in Physical Therapy.
By the time she entered middle school, Mariah relied completely upon her wheelchair and was completely blind. She also had limited dexterity, making her ability to read braille impossible. Refusing to be limited by her circumstances, she joined the school choir and was able to do many things with the help of her amazing assistant, Mrs. Taylor. “She let Mariah attempt any project she wanted to do or club she wanted to be a part of. She would even come to family events outside of the school environment.”
During the ninth grade, Mariah had a devastating seizure and was hospitalized for six months, setting her back physically and mentally. Finally, her parents received some answers. “A genetics doctor from Atlanta discovered that Mariah had OPA1 (Optic Atrophy Type 1), as well as Autosomal Dominant Optic Atrophy, which involves weakness in the muscles that control eye movement, difficulty with balance and coordination, hearing loss, disturbances in the nerves used for muscle movement and sensation, and muscle weakness.”
But, Mariah never gave up. She was introduced to the Big Brother/Big Sister Club the first day of high school. “There, she learned how to help others. It also taught her that she could be a leader. This club is what inspired her to have a greater purpose in life.” After graduating from high school in 2013, Mariah enrolled at Florence-Darlington Technical College, but she was only able to attend through spring 2014. “Her disability was affecting her memory. The struggle to study and prepare for tests overwhelmed her.” Mariah also motivated Elizabeth to make some lifestyle changes. “She would often lose balance getting into and out of the shower or just moving about. Getting her up was not an easy feat for me, an out-of-shape women weighing 185 pounds. Over the next year, I lost 40 pounds and was strong enough to do anything she needed me to do.”
Elizabeth became a runner, and Mariah was her chief cheerleader. “During one of my races, Mariah stayed home because it was raining ‘cats and dogs.’ Chip Parrott was there with his son Taylor, who has Cerebral Palsy. They, along with runners Mercedes Jeffords and Shelling Warmer of the group Ainsley’s Angels (a nonprofit inspired by a father’s desire to run alongside his disabled daughter), completed the race. I remember the look on Taylor’s face, and I wanted the same for Mariah.” After some encouragement from Elizabeth, personal trainer Robin Parker, and running coach Kelly Lookadoo, Mariah agreed to try a race. Elizabeth then contacted Shelly Warner from the South Carolina chapter of Ainsley’s Angels regarding a special racing chair. Shelly helped Elizabeth start a fundraiser, and they hoped adequate funds would be received in a month. “By the end of the first day, we had raised 25%. On the second day, the Taylor Elmore Foundation (a group established in memory of a West Florence High School student) contacted us wanting to make a donation.” Apple Annie’s and The Olanta Lions Club also made a donation, helping Mariah achieve her goal in just four days. The family appreciates The Sole Blazers Running Club for donation help with racing fees and supplies.
On October 20, 2015, Mariah was presented her new chair during her talk on “Disabilities, Dogs and Deeds” at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School. “The kids asked every question imaginable. They spoke freely, and Mariah loved it. She was honest and told them everything from her favorite food and color to what it is like to be blind. Unfortunately, parents often discourage kids from asking the ‘uncomfortable’ questions to people with disabilities. But, Mariah is able to teach them about having disabilities, how to act around service dogs and how to be a friend. She shared her lessons in compassion and caring to a great group of kids. Her new chair was now a vehicle to help spread the message that disabled people can get out and enjoy life, a message of inclusion. We would love to come share with other schools, small groups, or churches.”
To train for her first race, Mariah developed a healthy diet of fish, vegetables and fruits, and plenty of water. She also consistently slept eight hours each night. “She and I go on training runs at least once a week. If time permits, we squeeze in a couple miles around the neighborhood prior to dinner.” The day of the 5K, Elizabeth and two other runners were Mariah’s “legs.” “It was such a spiritual moment to be in the presence of my daughter and these other women who wanted to help her cross the finish line.” It didn’t take long for Mariah to discover how therapeutic racing is for her. “Her time spent running in her chair gives her time to be closer to God. She loves to hear the birds, the rustle of leaves and the occasional runner or walker. The wind that brushes her face makes her feel refreshed and renewed.” Last month she completed her first race with Ainsley’s Angels of South Carolina. “It honestly melts my heart to see her enjoying herself. She is ALL smiles at these events.”
Mariah has always had a deep, spiritual side. “I’ve told her she is wise beyond her years. Her service dog, Rino, has also helped her be more outgoing. Mariah sets the bar high for herself and gives 100% of whatever her body can give. People see her improvement, hard work, and dedication – who wouldn’t be influenced by that!” The one she’s impacted most of all, however, is Elizabeth. “The best way to sum it up: I am her legs; she is my heart.”
“Ultimately, we want to start a yearly event to raise money to buy more chairs for Ainsley’s Angels, so we can have more rider-athletes roll with the wind. We honestly feel that everything that Mariah and I have been through has been part of God’s greater plan for us. We have both had our struggles, but He put us here together for this purpose, to share the gift of Mariah with everyone else and to give back to the community through running!”