Teacher Carries 10-Year-Old Student with Cerebral Palsy on Her Back During Class Hike
Helma Wardenaar, of Chicago, Illinois, says she’d do anything for her students. And she stayed true to her word recently when she learned a student with cerebral palsy wouldn’t be able to participate in an overnight camping trip.
Maggie Vazquez, a 10-year-old student at The Academy for Global Citizenship, uses a walker and school officials feared that neither the walker nor a wheelchair would be adequate for the active little girl during the three-day camping trip at Camp Sullivan in Oak Forest.
“It wasn’t a question of if she could go, it’s how can she go,” Wardenaar tells PEOPLE, noting that she and school officials were eager to come up with a solution. “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.”
So, Wardenaar, 38, took matters into her own hands.
After weighing several options — including renting a pony for Vazquez — Wardenaar learned about the Freeloader, a $300 child carrier that would allow Wardenaar to carry the little girl on her back. The carrier holds up to 65 lbs. and Wardenaar says she was more than happy to carry Vazquez.
“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 adds: “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.”
They set off on the trip May 30, in which they went on hikes, explored the forest and did many activities. Wardenaar says she carried Vazquez for about two hours each day of the trip.
“It was kind of heavy, but I’m strong and didn’t want to give up,” Wardenaar tells PEOPLE. “Whenever I had moments when I was tired or huffing and puffing, she would sing songs or say positive words to me.”
Wardenaar says Vazquez’s mother, Michelle, was grateful to the teacher, adding that she and Michelle have worked together for the past five years to create the best learning environment for Vazquez.
Michelle praised the teacher in a Facebook post on Wednesday, writing, “Making a difference in someone’s life. A super big thanks to Ms. Helma Wardenaar for her passion and dedication to all her students.”
Wardenaar says she’s honored to work at the school, which teaches children with autism, speech challenges, learning disabilities and more.
“This is what I do it for, these moments of enjoying these little successes together,” she tells PEOPLE.
School officials have set up a GoFundMe page for the teacher.