Nature studies are an important part of the curriculum at the Academy for Global Citizenship charter school in Chicago, Illinois, and each year, fourth graders put skills they learned on paper to the test during a two-day annual camping trip.
Maggie Vazquez had no doubt been anticipating the trip since she was a kindergartner, but there was just one problem: She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair or walker to get around. But her special ed teacher, Helma Wardenaar, is used to having to think outside the box and went out of her way to figure out a way for Maggie to join in the trip.
The trail they’d be hiking along is rocky and rugged, so Helma looked at various options, including using one of the school’s wheelbarrows as a makeshift wheelchair. Another possibility was renting a pony, but she later learned that was against forest service policy. She considered doing it anyway and just paying the fine, but ultimately decided against it because “it would set a bad example,” she said.
So this determined teacher stopped by the local REI store and spoke with an employee, Greg Coleman, to see if he knew of any specialized equipment she could use. They initially came up empty handed, but two weeks later, he got back in touch.
“I couldn’t let go of that idea,” he told her. “I really want to help you out.”
He’d had spent some time researching the possibilities and found the perfect piece of equipment: The FreeLoader, a backpack specifically designed to carry children.
It carried a price tag of $300, but that was nothing compared with the cost of purchasing or renting an off-road wheelchair or renting a pony and paying the fine if they were caught.
Thankfully, Maggie and I are both strong women and we made it work. For me, working out is how I stay balanced. For Maggie, her strength is how she stays independent. She’s got amazing upper body strength from working with the walker and our physical therapist. She always wins our pull-up contests.
Not only did Maggie get to join the rest of her class on the hiking trip, but she served as a one-person cheering section for her beloved teacher whenever she started slowing down from the extra weight.
She was encouraging me! Giving me little neck massages when she saw I was struggling. She made up songs for us to sing. She sang a song when I was really sweating. She kept saying: Come on Ms. Helma! You can do it!
She loved the trip. We saw deer footprints, butterflies, birds, etc. Maggie sang along while I hiked. She wrote an original song about the camp and how much fun the time together is.
The story of this strong little girl and determined teacher has since gained national attention, and people are now donating to help reimburse the school for the cost of The Freeloader. To donate, click here.
This is such a great example of teamwork to make this little girl’s dream come true. Share to spread thanks to Helma and Greg for going out of their way to ensure Maggie could enjoy the great outdoors with the rest of her class!
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