When Helma Wardenaar (MEd ’08) posted a photo on a closed Facebook group of herself carrying a special-needs student on her back during a school hiking trip, she only wanted to say “thank you” to a community of women for helping her find a suitable backpack.
“I thought I would maybe get 50 ‘likes’ and would also help someone else in the meantime,” says Wardenaar, a founding teacher at the Academy for Global Citizenship in Chicago. Little did she know that not only would her post receive more than 10,000 “likes” but also it would go viral within 24 hours. Her story was picked up by national outlets, including “Good Morning America,” and broadcast in 26 countries.
Wardenaar only wanted to make sure one of her students, 10-year-old Maggie Vazquez, would be able to go on the school hiking trip. Vazquez has cerebral palsy, and the trail’s rugged terrain is not wheelchair friendly. After much research, Wardenaar found the right backpack and the two made the three-day hike together.
“Love is what matters,” Wardenaar says. “Sometimes it was hard. I was carrying what amounted to 70 pounds on my back for hours every day. But when it was tough, Maggie said, ‘We can do it!’ and she pushed me through.”
Born in the Netherlands, Wardenaar earned a bachelor’s degree in education in her home country despite vowing as a child never to become a teacher. “My mom was a special-education teacher for 35 years. I grew up helping her after school in her classroom. I always said, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher because you work super-long hours, and even over summer break, you don’t really have a break,’” she recalls. But, as she considered what she wanted to do with her life, she realized there was only one path for her: teaching.
“What other jobs out there allow you to be in a caring position and work with kids while giving you creativity and autonomy?” she says.
After she moved to Chicago in 2005, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in education. She immediately chose DePaul’s College of Education. “DePaul’s mission and vision stood out to me, [to be] always helping and caring about others and making sure you leave a place better than you found it,” says Wardenaar.
As for the media frenzy surrounding her recent adventure, she remains nonplussed. “I’m humbled by all the attention this story received. It’s really about making sure inclusive education works and finding solutions together. At the end of the day, we want to be someone else’s reason to smile,” she says.