In an extraordinary display of commitment, an Illinois teacher, known affectionately as “Ms. Helma,” went above and beyond to make sure that one of her 4th-grade students with cerebral palsy could participate in a two-day hiking trip. Helma Wardenaar’s dedication was so profound that she physically carried 10-year-old Maggie Vazquez, creating an inclusive and memorable experience for the young student.
As the school administrators grappled with finding a solution to include Maggie in the trip to Camp Sullivan, located 40 miles from their Chicago charter school, Academy of Global Citizenship, Wardenaar’s determination shone through. The focus was never on whether Maggie would go but on figuring out the most suitable method to make it happen.
Various ideas were explored, ranging from a wheelchair to a barrel and even the whimsical notion of renting a pony. However, logistical challenges and forest preserve regulations ruled out these options. Undeterred, Wardenaar turned to social media, seeking advice on Facebook. Through a connection with an employee named Greg at Recreational Equipment Inc., she discovered the Freeloader, a carrier tailored for taller children like Maggie.
After securing Maggie’s approval, Wardenaar purchased the $300 product, allowing the outdoor adventure to proceed. From May 30 to June 1, approximately 50 fourth-grade students and 10 school personnel embarked on the camping trip.
Wardenaar recounted the experience, emphasizing the shared moments with nature. “We saw birds, frogs, and deer. We were able to do everything her peers were doing; she was one of us.” Carrying Maggie through challenging terrain was no small feat, but Wardenaar found inspiration in Maggie’s resilience and the joy she experienced being with her peers.
Maggie’s mother, Michelle Vazquez, expressed admiration for Wardenaar’s unwavering support, acknowledging her advocacy for Maggie since the first grade. Vazquez praised Wardenaar for going “way above and beyond” during the recent camping trip, providing opportunities that Maggie, due to her challenges, wouldn’t typically have. Being out in nature proved to be an amazing and unique experience for Maggie.
Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, the executive director at AGC, echoed Vazquez’s sentiments, praising Ms. Helma as the “epitome of relentless determination” and someone who consistently goes the extra mile to ensure her students receive the right support.
Wardenaar’s exceptional efforts serve as a testament to the impact dedicated educators can have on the lives of their students. In this instance, it highlights the importance of inclusivity and the lengths to which teachers like Ms. Helma are willing to go to create meaningful and memorable experiences for their students.