Maine author dresses like mushroom, attempts 40-mile walk to protest student loans

By Amy R. Connolly   |   Sept. 29, 2015 at 3:47 PM
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BRIDGTON, Maine, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- When Cheryl Johnson decided to call attention to the nationwide student loan debt crisis and her own battle with her student loan servicer, she decided to do it at a snail's pace.

Outfitted in a head-to-toe mushroom costume and carrying a pink stuffed snail, Johnson attempted Sunday to traverse the roads from her hometown of Bridgeton, Maine to the second largest city in the state, Portland, in an effort to draw attention to the nationwide crisis that is hitting home. While she couldn't finish the 40-mile trek, she's glad some are listening to her problems -- the same ones that are impacting millions across the United States.

Johnson, 60, graduated from the Maine College of Art some 15 years ago with about $38,000 in student loan debt, she planned to work two jobs to pay it down. That is, until a breast cancer diagnosis derailed her life and her get-out-of-debt strategy. With deferments and delays, the balance has since ballooned to more than $110,000 with more than $1,000 monthly payments, she said.

"I've cried a lot in the past 15 years, but at least I'm past that," she said. "I worked really hard to get the degree, but it wasn't worth this."

About 43 million Americans owe an estimated $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. Of that, about $103 billion is in default. With rising college costs, students are continuing to put themselves in financial straits for higher education. Lawmakers nationwide continue to draw up plans that may help, but none can come soon enough for Johnson.

Johnson entered college at age 38 with the hopes of learning more about art. Now the author and illustrator of the Mish the Mushroom Man series of children's books, said her loan company is threatening to place a lien on her home. She said she's tried to renegotiate her loan to no avail.

Dressing as her lovable mushroom character is the one way she knows how to protest the loan system, draw attention to her work and get some money at the same time. Last year, when she attempted the same walk, she raised about $2,500 through pledges. This year, she decided not to take pledges, instead just walking in protest while publicizing her work.

She said she's frustrated by the situation and worried about her future.

"It doesn't matter to them," she said of her loan servicer. "It's not their life."

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