Not-So-Simple Sarah

At 15 years old, Sarah Johnson appears to be your average teenager. She is lively and determined, seasoned with a hint of rebel. As a competitive horseback rider, and Grade 10 student at École La Vérendrye, Sarah isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. But what lies under the surface gives a glance into the life of a young girl overcoming obstacles in more ways than one.

Sarah started learning to ride horses at the age of eight. She can’t remember what first got her interested in the sport, but for as long as she can remember she’s loved horses. “I saw a TV show, I think it was ‘Heartland’,” she says, “and then I just wanted to ride horses ever since.” Her first horse was a smaller pony named Quincey, or Rising Sun Quincey as he was known in competitions. Sarah has competed in the hunter and jumper divisions over the past three years, both locally and in Calgary. She’s won more than a few. A rack of ribbons lines her bedroom wall; fancy champion ribbons numbering first to eighth place.

“I love it because it's more than just a sport,” says Sarah. “It's a relationship with an animal that most people have no idea can do these crazy things.”

But it hasn’t always been easy to pursue her passion, as Sarah suffers from a variety of ailments. Sarah was born with plagiocephaly, which is a condition characterized by the flattening of one side of her skull.  Over time she developed torticollis, a condition where the neck tends to twist to one side, causing head tilt, neck stiffness and pain. And her feet are usually sore due to Sever’s disease, a common infliction in active children that causes pain in the heels. The Sever’s caused cracks in her heal bone and she spent the summer in a boot cast.

At the age of 11, Sarah was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis. According to the Mayo Clinic, scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine that occurs most often during the growth spurt before puberty. Most cases are mild, but some children develop spine deformities that continue to get more severe as they grow.

Sarah’s scoliosis flew under the radar until near the end of Grade 6, when it was found by accident. The doctor was checking for other problems and noticed she had a rib hump. She was sent for an X-ray and the diagnosis was made. For now, she has avoided having surgery by wearing a brace for most of each day. She was wearing a smaller blue brace, but last year she learned her previous orthopaedic surgeon miscalculated her curve. Sarah now wears a bigger white plastic brace, which runs from her hips up to her collarbone for anywhere from 18-20 hours every day. The brace is to prevent the curve from getting worse and help correct it a little. She won’t know if she requires surgery for a few more years.

“I had to teach myself to deal with it and just wear it for those 18 to 20 hours. And the best feeling in the world is taking it off… just unsticking the shirt,” says Sarah. Living with scoliosis is the most challenging for Sarah, as wearing the brace causes her muscle memory to always be in a tipped forward position and slightly off to the side. She also has a rib hump, caused by scoliosis torsion, that prevents her right shoulder blade from coming down to sit when tall in the saddle. But the physical discomfort she experiences is often overshadowed by insecurity when out in public. People often stare at her brace and she says it makes her feel self conscious.

“I think that… I'm different. I'm weird. I'm strange. Everyone stares at me. And sometimes a little five-year-old will come and say, ‘What's that? What's it for?’ And that makes me feel better because someone's brave enough just to say, ‘Hey, why do you have that white plastic thing around your body?’ Which, in a way helps so much with me, just being crooked from head to toe, it makes me feel much better about it.”

Sometimes she needs to take a step back and remind herself not to feel so anxious about it. “I had to tell myself, ‘Why do I have to be self conscious about something that is part of me and is making me who I am.’”

None of this stops her from accomplishing her dreams. Despite the hardships, Sarah continues to pursue her passions while quietly enduring the pain she’s often experiencing. “Just because I’m really sore and everything, that doesn't mean I can't do the things I want to do, mainly because it's only me stopping myself,” she says. “So how can I punch this brace in the gut and tell it ‘I'm dealing with you and I'm doing what I want to do, whether you want me to or not.’”

Today, Sarah trains with Donna Ferguson, a Certified Equine Canada Competition Coach Specialist, at Tailwind Equestrian (previously with Mindy Myers of Isliefson Equestrian). To pursue her riding goals, Sarah needed a younger horse that could jump a little higher. She found a new home for Quincey and purchased Charlie (Baywatch), a 10-year-old Canadian Warmblood Gelding. But horse riding is an expensive sport, and the teen needed to earn some money to contribute to the purchase of the horse and tack.

Sarah cannot stand for long periods of time without pain. Due to her need to sit down often, she found it difficult to gain employment in retail or at a fast food restaurant, the typical places a young teenager might work. So, she decided to become an entrepreneur. Simply Sarah’s Jams and Jellies was founded in August 2018. “Because then I can work whenever I want. And I can look out the window and see my horse,” she says with a smile.

Sarah learned how to make jam and jelly from her mother, Joanne. She conjured up her first batch using crab apples and berries from their family farm and ended up picking around 70 quarts of crab apples. “And I sat there juicing them,” she says, for hours each day.

She began marketing her goods through social media and school markets and it quickly gained popularity among the locals. She sold more than 1,500 jars last year. Now she has over 15 varieties of jam, jelly or apple butter.

But it’s not just a money-making venture to pay for her equine addiction. Sarah has learned valuable lessons about running a business. She’s involved in the day-to-day grind, from handpicking the fruit to balancing the books and sourcing ingredients on sale. With this uptick in demand, she’s outgrown the family home’s kitchen. A certified commercial kitchen was built this summer in a refurbished oil field building placed near the house. Now she hopes to get her product into specialty stores in Lethbridge and start peddling it at handmade markets.

Her parents, Joanne and Murray, are extremely proud of the work ethic and perseverance display by Sarah each day. But Joanne stresses the importance of parents taking their children to the doctor regularly, because it’s easy for some things to fly under the radar until it’s too late. Research shows that genetics plays a role in about 30 per cent of cases, but the exact cause of Sarah’s scoliosis is unknown.

Sarah says the most helpful source of strength in overcoming adversity has been the encouragement she receives from her friends and family. “It just helps so much. In a way they just lift me up from this place of self-consciousness. I started depriving myself of social contact and I just wanted to hide. And in the beginning, I hated it. I still don’t like it. But it’s kind of part of me now.”

Her message for others dealing with obstacles: “Push through. Do it anyway.”

“Hopefully I'm done with it soon. That's all I gotta say. The best way to put it is, in the end you'll be free from it. The light at the end of the tunnel is there. You just got to make it there.”


For more information, visit “Simply Sarah's Jams and Jellies” on Facebook or phone (403) 795-7747.
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