A Teacher Refused To Exclude A Disabled Girl From A Hike, So She Devised A Truly Ingenious Plan

When a class of Chicago, Illinois, fourth-graders were getting ready to go on a field trip, their teacher Helma Wardenaar realized that they faced a real problem. That’s because one of the kids had cerebral palsy – meaning it would be difficult to part in the activities on offer. Indeed, it was going to take a creative solution to get out of this quandary.

That teacher, Wardenaar, who is from Holland, couldn’t accept that she’d have to exclude young Maggie Vazquez. The student at The Academy for Global Citizenship would not be able to employ the means that she normally used to get around, because the trip would include a hike that would prove unsuitable for her walker.

Nor would a wheelchair be of any use, given the rockiness of the planned route. It looked as though Vasquez would have to miss out on the trip at Camp Sullivan in Oak Forest, Illinois. Founder teacher at The Academy for Global Citizenship Wardenaar would not give up on her young charge, however. But how she tackled the problem of the hike might surprise you.

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For her part, Wardenaar teaches in Chicago at The Academy for Global Citizenship. But this is a public charter school with a difference – it aims to educate with an “innovative and holistic approach.” Opened in 2008, it operates from what used to be a dental tool factory sitting on the city’s southwest.

Right from the start, the school looked to offer something new, with the founders adopting concepts that they had learned from going to schools worldwide. And Wardenaar took part in the process with gusto, indulging her passion for learning about different schools. She particularly relished researching countries in Scandinavia, where she found some schools that she described to Love What Matters in 2018 as “amazing.”

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The key idea for the academy was to be a place where each person cared for the other, with regard for the Earth too. And education at the school isn’t limited to the classroom – indeed, the children also learn how to eat, being served meals that use organic ingredients and are well balanced nutritionally. Furthermore, they even do yoga every day.

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Because The Academy for Global Citizenship serves a community that isn’t the richest, money can be a bit tight. It caters to plenty of children with special needs, ranging from autism to learning disabilities, but doing so costs more than the district can give the school. So it does need donations to help pay for equipment and specialists.

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One of the students who has special needs is Maggie Vazquez, who joined the school during kindergarten. For her part, she thrills the teachers and schoolmates alike with her talent as a singer, aiming to emulate heroines Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift. And Wardenaar’s love for Vasquez is clear – she didn’t hold back on Love What Matters, letting the world know that the child is “strong, smart, funny [and] sweet.”

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Vazquez lives with cerebral palsy, the commonest physical disability for a child. It affects one baby each hour, according to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation, which works out to one in every 323 Americans being born with the condition. In Vazquez’ case, it has made it difficult for her to walk, hitting her coordination and ability to plan motor functions.

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However, neither Vasquez nor the school is willing to just give into cerebral palsy. Indeed, the school works with her family whenever there’s a problem. And sometimes the answer to the issue requires some serious creativity. But as Wardenaar wrote on Facebook, “It’s a pleasure working with [Vasquez’ mom]. Together we always find solutions!”

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For her part, Vasquez does not allow her condition to get her down, staying active with the help of her walker. Her mom, Michelle, shared with Good Morning America in June 2018 more detail about what made her daughter tick. She said, “She loves to work on fine detailed art coloring books and has started some independent drawing. She loves music [and] she loves being outside, but the motor challenges make it difficult.”

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Moreover, Vasquez has what her mom described to Good Morning America as a “quirky sense of humor.” These qualities have led to her having great value in her class. So they’re always willing to find ways for her to join in, despite the difficulties. And Wardenaar added, “Some accommodations for students with a disability can be challenging.”

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Meanwhile, one thing Vasquez adores is to be out with the school’s chickens. She even used to treat them to reading sessions when she first encountered the written word. Indeed, it’s all part of the school’s mission to teach the kids about nature and to create individuals who will care for the planet.

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Consequently, the school doesn’t just keep chickens – it also has gardens and even bees. And part of the students’ education is to go on field trips, including a camping excursion in the fourth grade. And in 2018 Vasquez’ class were all set to go off for a visit to Camp Sullivan, in Oak Forest, IL, where they’d get the chance to get close to the wildlife.

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Unsurprisingly, the class were excited about the upcoming camping trip. But it did pose a problem for the teachers at the academy. If Vasquez was going to enjoy her time in the forest alongside her friends, there’d be a need for some of those creative solutions. So it was time for the thinking caps to go on.

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There was no chance that Vasquez would have to miss out. Indeed, Wardenaar was quite determined that she would get to enjoy the great outdoors with her buddies. The teacher noted on Love What Matters, “It was never the question if she could go, but rather how she could go.”

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Indeed, it wasn’t just Wardenaar who felt that Vasquez must go on the field trip. As she explained to ABC 7 in June 2018, “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.”

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However, the real problem would turn out to be the big hike. After consulting with the park rangers and another teacher, Wardenaar recognized that going along a path used by deers might pose a serious difficulty. The route was narrow and the terrain strewn with rocks and fallen trees. And that would be impossible for Vasquez’ walker to traverse.

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Moreover, the path was too tricky to wheel a chair along. Wardenaar pondered whether it might be possible to fashion a more sturdy conveyance out of a wheelbarrow, but that just didn’t fit the bill. Dismissing the idea of using an alternate route, which would spoil the experience for everyone, the teacher considered using a pony.

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However, the forest preserve said that using a pony would not be possible and risked a fine. Wardenaar thought about whether she would just take one anyway and then if she was caught, she’d just pay up. But on reflection, she realized that such blatant rulebreaking wouldn’t be setting a good example to the kids.

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So it seemed that Wardenaar had just about run out of ideas. It seemed as though she was faced with an impossible problem – how mechanically could she get Vasquez around the trek, with all the obstacles on the path. Then she had a brainwave: if she had the right carrier, she could pop the pupil into it and carry her.

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With that idea in mind, Wardenaar contacted Greg Coleman at an outdoor equipment supplier in Chicago. They went through a bunch of options, but none of them seemed suitable for a child who weighed 62 pounds. Indeed, it looked as though Wardenaar had run into another dead end, so she shelved the idea.

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However, Coleman was not willing to just give up, and he was back in contact a couple of weeks later. Wardenaar told ABC 7 that he wrote to say, “I couldn’t let go of that idea. I really want to help you out.” And it turned out that he could – because he’d found a potential solution.

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Coleman proposed a Freeloader – which is a back carrier with a harness, so it would be safe for Vasquez to use. And yes, it was perfect. The only downside was that it would cost $300, and the school didn’t have the money. Wardenaar was not going to let that stop her, though, so she forked out the cash herself.

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And when Wardenaar showed Vasquez the solution, she was overjoyed. In June 2018 the teacher told People magazine about what happened when she showed the backpack to Vasquez. She said, “She was like, ‘Ms. [Warendaar]! You found something?’” And her class were equally euphoric at the solution. The teacher said, “They were like, ‘Yay! [Vasquez] can do this.’”

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It was clear that this outcome was a huge uplift for Vasquez. Wardenaar told People more about the young girl’s feelings, adding, “She was so happy, she was like, ‘… I’m going on the trip too! I’m going to see some butterflies!’ She was so happy when she knew she was going.”

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So when the class went to Oak Forest for the camping trip, they could all take part in the hike. Wardenaar hoisted Vasquez onto her back and took her along the whole way. And the teacher had no complaints about having to hump an extra 62 pounds around the deer trail with her.

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Indeed, Wardenaar proved able to draw on her resolve to keep going along the rough trail. She told People, “It was kind of heavy, but I’m strong and didn’t want to give up.” And that determination kept the teacher going for the two hours that the trek took each day.

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Wardenaar explained that one of the ways that she spends her spare time had helped her out in the task. She noted on Love What Matters, “Working out is how I stay balanced.” Her fitness regime had given her the strength that she needed to take Vasquez along with the class.

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On top of Wardenaar’s own resources, she also received help from her passenger Vasquez. The teacher explained in her Love What Matters piece that her student was a strong person too. She might have problems with her legs, but her upper body had benefited from using her walker and from physical therapy with a helper. Wardenaar noted the result, “She always wins our pull-up contests.”

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So Vasquez and Wardenaar worked together to make the hike successful – and the pupil gave her teacher plenty of encouragement. Meanwhile, when the going got tough for the latter, there was a little voice in her ear cheering her on and singing to keep her going. Moreover, Vasquez would give her educator neck massages when Wardenaar seemed to be struggling.

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Wardenaar told ABC 7 about the encouragement she had received from Vasquez. She said, “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.” All in all, the teacher said that her charge had been her inspiration to come up with a fix.

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Consequently, Wardenaar had some kind words to say about Vasquez. The teacher wrote on Love What Matters, “[She] just is such an example for others. She never gives up, and she keeps smiling!” And despite the attention from the media that her story has brought, Wardenaar noted, “It’s funny, we didn’t think twice about doing this for [Vasquez]. This is just what we do.”

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Indeed, Wardenaar credited her school’s ethos, adding that helping other people is just integral to its culture. And it’s her belief that doing this will make the world better for everybody. She noted that the school teaches its students to solve problems in the world around them using their creativity.

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But Wardenaar wanted Vasquez to have all the kudos. That’s because she believed her student didn’t allow living with a disability to stop her from being part of her community. And she welcomed the attention as the story went viral, adding on Love What Matters, “I’m excited that this story is spreading. Disabilities create barriers and challenges, but we can overcome them together.”

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On top of that, Wardenaar looked to the future. She described what she foresaw for Vasquez: a life that would include dating and employment, which she would be equipped to tackle without anyone to carry her through it. The teacher said the school worked to bring out Vasquez’ potential so that she could manage it.

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Wardenaar summed up that bringing out the best in Vasquez would take hard work and the involvement of the broader community. Consequently, she hoped that the story would augment support for the young girl and others like her, whether from teachers, parents or donors. Certainly, the teacher had shown that she was willing to go the extra mile for her.

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Meanwhile, Vasquez’ mom Michelle was very thankful for Wardenaar’s effort. In a June 2018 Facebook post, she described it as “making a difference in someone’s life.” And she didn’t hold back in her praise of the school or the teacher. The mother wrote, “And a special thank you for the love and commitment you’ve shown [Vasquez].”

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And when given the chance to offer a token of their esteem, the wider community wasn’t slow to do so. When a colleague began a GoFundMe to raise funds for the backpack and other special equipment, she asked for contributions of $2,000. Indeed, the money flooded in, passing that mark and topping $3,000.

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Meanwhile, the final word goes to Wardenaar, who selflessly credits Vasquez for the whole thing. The teacher told ABC 7, “[She’s] just such a wonderful student. She’s bright, positive, determined.” And explaining what had made the grueling hike worthwhile, she said, “With her smile and her enthusiasm, she inspires. You want to go above and beyond.”

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