If Helma Wardenaar was going to take her class on a trip, she was going to take the entire class. She refused to leave any of her students behind.
So she had to get creative when it came to the class’ annual hike.
That’s because one of her students has cerebral palsy. Wardenaar, a special education teacher and director of student services at the Academy for Global Citizenship on Chicago’s Southwest Side, has worked with 10-year-old Maggie Vazquez since she was in kindergarten.
Maggie uses a walker or wheelchair to get around which presented a challenge to bringing her on a two-day hiking trip in the woods where kids would observe wildlife at Camp Sullivan in Oak Forest.
But Wardenaar was determined to include Maggie.
“As a school, it was very important to include her. We thought it was super important for her to be there and able to do everything the other students were doing,” Wardenaar told ABC 7.
That’s when Wardenaar put on her thinking cap. First, she thought she would borrow a friend’s pony that Maggie could ride.
The forest preserve, however, said that ponies weren’t allowed on the trail.
“It wasn’t a question of if she could go, it’s how can she go,” Wardenaar told PEOPLE. “It was really too long and far and there was gonna be creeks, fallen over trees and low-hanging branches. This student is part of our community and we love her and want to do anything we can for her. We needed to find a way.”
Wardenaar even considered taking a hit with the fine but she didn’t want to set a bad example for the children by breaking the rules.
She then reached out to Greg Coleman at REI store in Chicago.
They sell travel backpacks, carriers, and slings but none of them were made to carry a 62-pound child. Wardenaar then considered using a wheelbarrow.
But that didn’t work either. Coleman wasn’t about to give up either. He reached out to Wardenaar two weeks after their initial conversation.
He came across something called the Freeloader.
A backpack-style child carrier that cost $300. Since there wasn’t any money for it in the school budget, Wardenaar bought it herself.
“When I showed it to Maggie her eyes became really big! She was like, ‘Ms. Helma! You found something?’ I showed it to her in the classroom so everybody saw and they were like, ‘Yay! Maggie can do this!’ ” Wardenaar recalled.
Maggie was over the moon that she would be joining her classmates.
“She was so happy, she was like, ‘Ms. Helma, I’m going on the trip too! I’m going to see some butterflies!’ She was so happy when she knew she was going,” Wardenaar said.
Not only did Wardenaar pay for it, she was also the one to carry Maggie on her back during the hike.
“When she noticed I was huffing and puffing, she even gave me a little massage on my neck. Then she started singing as a distraction,” Wardenaar said.
Wardenaar said she carried Maggie for about two hours each day on the trip.
She says that Maggie was her inspiration to stay strong and continue.
“Maggie’s just such a wonderful student. She’s bright, positive, determined,” Wardenaar said. “With her smile and her enthusiasm, she inspires. You want to go above and beyond.”
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For Wardenaar, it’s all in a day’s work.
“This is what I do it for, these moments of enjoying these little successes together,” she said.
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