Misjudging the depth of the water in Chesapeake Bay where she was diving with some friends, Joni broke her neck and severed her spinal cord. She was paralyzed from the neck down and will be for the rest of her life.
"I was bitter and despondent," says Joni. "My best friend would come to the hospital and I'd beg her to bring pills so I could commit suicide." But during 18 months of hospitalization she gradually substituted prayer for thoughts of death. During high school, Joni had been active in a Christian youth group called "Young Life." "I believed in God, but I was frustrated," she recalls. "I didn't think He was a personal God. I prayed that He would show me that He was real. Then one day in the hospital my boyfriend read me a Bible verse suggesting that the accident itself was God's answer to me." ("All things fit together in a pattern for those who love God." Romans 8:28.) At first she thought the idea ludicrous, then found her philosophy changing.
"I began to develop patience. I started using the mouth stick recommended by my occupational therapist." In time, Joni found that with a mouth-held pencil or pen she could not only write easily but could draw as well. "My drawings got better and better. I think they were a visual, outward expression of what was going on in my heart."
Today, at 26, Joni is an accomplished artist who operates a greeting card company, which reproduces her own art work on its cards, and is co-owner of a religious bookstore. "Sales run about $1,000 a month," Joni says as she prints "P.T.L." in the corner of a drawing for one of her all-occasion cards. The letters stand for "Praise the Lord," the name of her company. "But printing costs are so high," she adds, "that we're really only breaking even." Joni's subjects include the flora and fauna of the horse farm outside Baltimore where she lives in a converted 200-year-old slave cabin with her sister Jay, a divorcée, and Jay's 10 year-old daughter. Joni's parents—her father is a retired builder and an artist himself—live nearby as do her two other sisters. Joni and Jay's home is usually filled with friends. "I'm dependent on people and people like to feel needed," Joni theorizes.
Because she is a dramatic witness to the power of faith, Joni is in wide demand as a lecturer to Christian youth groups. Though friendly with many men, she knows she will never marry. "If I loved a man enough to marry him, I hope I'd love him enough to say no." Reaching still deeper into the beliefs forged by her accident, the cheerful young woman proclaims: "God loved me enough to break my neck."
A former Olympic wrestler, Johnny Eareckson never had a son. But Joni (who pronounces her name the same as Dad's), the youngest of his four daughters, was becoming a regular chip off the old block. As a 10-year-old she did trick riding on the East Coast rodeo circuit. In her senior year, classmates voted blond, good-looking Joni the "outstanding girl athlete" of her suburban Baltimore high school. Then one warm summer day after graduation in 1967, she had an accident.