EMPOWERED THROUGH ADVERSITY - A special feature series

COMMITTED: to family, kindness, and each other

Willoughby twins fight to overcome adversity and pave a positive future for themselves and family

Fifth and final in a multi-feature series

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As an inspiration for others, several Langley residents were asked to tell their tales of struggle, and describe the tools they used to help overcome those challenges.

In the last of our features, the Langley Advance Times shares a story of twins who have faced a number of hurdles.

Thanks to optimism, determination, and each other, they’re persevering.

RECENT PROFILES:

REALIZATION: A little self-love is in order

SURVIVOR: time and time again

FIGHTING FOR RWANDA: One book at a time

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Identical twins Jessica and Chantel Johnson have relied on each other to get through many of the difficult situations life has dished up through their lives.

With their mother struggling with a debilitating health issue, this pair has – since a very young age – strove to not only persevere together through whatever adversities they face, but they’ve endeavoured to bring smiles and happiness to everyone around them.

“I am proud that despite personal challenges, my sister and I always treat others with kindness… and carry an infectious positive attitude,” Jessica said, sharing a huge smile.

“Personally I have learned that even when life is so terrible, you’ve got to keep giving others love,” she added.

Chantel quickly nodded in agreement.

“I want to be someone I’d want to be friends with,” she said. “You shouldn’t let your bad days effect other people.”

Sharing their thoughts on a subject they’re both equally passionate about, Jessica piped in: “Everyone has problems, and sometimes they effect you more or less. It’s how you deal with it, that defines who you are… remember, someone else out there always has it worse.”

Admittedly, they might deserve their own pity party. After all, life hasn’t been easy on these girls who turned 18 this summer.

Primarily, it stems from the fact that their single mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2005 – when Mom was 36 and the girls were only three.

“Throughout my childhood, I have watched as her disease has terrifyingly progressed,” Jessica said.

Chantel explained more.

“It is hard for kids with healthy parents to understand just how much more challenging everyday tasks are for my mother,” she said.

“It’s hard for kids with healthy parents to understand what it feels like to fear that your mother may not even be able to walk for much longer or be around – sorry, that sounds so depressing,” she said.

Their mother’s disease continues to progress, striking her physically and cognitively – despite Mom’s constant desire to remain independent and strong.

That, in itself, is hard for a daughter to witness.

“Even throughout her sickness, she just wants to do things. But it exhausts her more and more,” Chantel said, noting that recently their mom – who is now forced to use a walker – suffered another fall that left her with a concussion and a torn ligament in her knee.

It’s nobody’s fault. It’s a reality of life, but it tends to make day-to-day living a little chaotic and unpredictable as the disease progresses, Chantel elaborated.

The progressive nature of MS has not only brought with it added responsibilities for the girls, but more financial hardship for the entire family.

“As a result, [Mom] is unable to work and receives a disability pension from the government,” Chantel said, noting it doesn’t leave a lot of extra money to maintain their Willoughby home and cover all the bills – let alone pave the way for them to attend university.

They’ve learned, Jessica said, to do without and to be frugal and cautious with money.

She and her sister have been working part-time during school for the past three years, to help out.

Despite the various extra burdens the girls have faced through the years, both agree it has served to bring them closer together than even most twins can imagine.

“It sounds corny, but we really are best friends,” Chantel said, explaining how they share most of the same interests – from their love of improv to their fanaticism about singer, songwriter, and model Shawn Mendez, as well as their enjoyment at making photo collages, and their mutal appreciation of just hanging out in bed watching movies.

“We grew into best friends,” Jessica interjected, calling her sister one of the strongest and funniest people she knows.

Likewise, with all that their family has faced – be it health issues, financial woes, or emotional drainage – it has brought the twins closer to their mother and older sister, as well.

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Life’s just a little different

“Sure, we go about our lives just a little bit differently than most kids would,” Jessica said.

They realized at a very early age that they couldn’t always hang with friends, they couldn’t afford the latest or high-end fashion items, they couldn’t always attend special events – maybe based on finances, other times due to available transportation, and sometimes just because of health-related emergencies forced a change of plans with little more than a moment’s notice.

Instead, they’ve faced added responsibilities at home, everything from basic household chores, needed grocery runs and meal prep, to unpredicted visits to the ER or doctors and evolving caregiver duties.

On top of that, as mentioned, each of the girls work part-time to help cover costs.

But they also had to be more diligent and devoted to their studies than most of their peers, realizing that the only way either of them could afford to post-secondary school would be through the aid of scholarships.

So, thanks to both of them earning straight As as they graduated from R.E. Mountain Secondary in June, plus endless work by Jessica to research scholarship options, the two are off to university this fall – on a full ride.

After a summer of working as hostesses at Red Robin restaurant, each will be taking a variety of general study courses at Simon Fraser University starting in September.

“As a single mother with three kids to provide for, I can see how much stress my mother’s financial situation causes her,” Jessica said.

“Unfortunately, we too feel the stress of this burden and I often find myself getting extreme amounts of anxiety because of it,” she admitted.

But thankfully, the girls each received a $27,000 scholarship to SFU, plus a further $5,000 Horatio Alger Canadian scholarship – which combined should be enough to cover their tuitions while they earn their bachelors, Jessica explained.

What will their futures hold in the way of careers? Both of them shrug their shoulders and say that’s still up in the air.

While they both love theatre, and have excelled to become award-winning improv artists during the past several years, Jessica said they’re each looking for a more “realistic” career path that could provide financial stability for them and their loved-ones.

“My sister and I are both interested in teaching, maybe, or ending climate change, hahaha. Or perhaps you’ll see us winning an Oscar in the future,” Jessica added with a chuckle.

“Because of my situation, I have always been determined to succeed in school and start a better future for myself and my mother,” she added, anxious for the chance to advance to post-secondary school and continue learning.

Sure, the Johnson twins have made compromises and concessions in life, maybe more than many 18-year-olds.

But it’s not a negative, Chantel insisted.

It’s helped make them who they are today.

“I am proud of who we have become,” interjected Jessica, describing themselves as confident, creative, and independent young women who love their family.

And, while they’re striving to constantly make the world around them a better place, the Johnson twins remain genuinely upbeat, happy, and downright optimistic about what their futures hold.

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Chantel and Jessica Johnson turned 18 recently, and are rejoicing in the fact that they’ve earned two scholarships each that will cover the cost of attending SFU starting this fall. (Roxanne Hooper/Langley Advance Times)

Chantel and Jessica Johnson turned 18 recently, and are rejoicing in the fact that they’ve earned two scholarships each that will cover the cost of attending SFU starting this fall. (Roxanne Hooper/Langley Advance Times)

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