Impact Feature Issue on Stories of Advocacy, Stories of Change from People with Disabilities, Their Families, and Allies (1988-2013)

Mary Jo’s Story... Continued (Part 2, 2013)


Virginia Esslinger and Mary Jo live in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Since 1996, Mary Jo has continued to not only be involved in her local community, she has also been active on the national level. In this article, she and her mother share more of her journey.

In the 17 years since I wrote the story about Mary Jo, many of the hopes and dreams for her have been realized. She was fully integrated throughout K-12 school. The only time she was in the “resource room” was for math and English. All other classes were in the regular classrooms with support as needed. She “hung-out” with her non-disabled peers at lunch, ball games and other events at their invitation, and she went to the senior prom. She was an active and integral part of the Girl Scout troop until it disbanded in middle school, and still sees some of her fellow Scouts.

Mary Jo also continued to participate in gymnastics at the gymnastics club until her fourth heart surgery during which she had an artificial valve placed and a Pacemaker installed, requiring her to take a blood thinner. The doctors advised her to discontinue gymnastics because of the danger of bleeding if she had a fall, and to refrain from contact sports to protect her Pacemaker. Prior to that, however, in 1999, she was selected to represent North Dakota and the USA in gymnastics at the Special Olympics World Games held in Raleigh, NC. There were 7,000 athletes from 150 countries participating. She competed in four events and came home with two gold and two silver medals!

Although disappointed at having to give up gymnastics, Mary Jo quickly turned to swimming. When she was younger, she had taken swimming lessons and had become a good swimmer. She started competing in swimming in Special Olympics, and soon added track, bowling, bocce ball and cheerleading for basketball. For several years Mary Jo also took ice skating lessons in the local Park Board program and participated in the annual skating shows. And she has twice participated in the community-wide Wild Hog Marathon 5-K walk/run event.

Recently I spoke with one of her classmates who was a good friend and had graduated with her from Central High School. She said that the 10th anniversary reunion of their graduation is being planned. I couldn’t believe it has been 10 years! I still recall with goose bumps and tears that graduation day. Mary Jo had been nominated by her classmates to give one of the speeches at graduation. She gave the welcoming speech, which was followed immediately by a standing ovation.

As an adult, Mary Jo has had several part-time and volunteer jobs. She is very active in our church, where she serves as a lector, altar server, and Sunday school assistant. She has also continued public speaking, including presenting a workshop for her peers at the 2006 Down Syndrome Congress national convention.

When asked to describe her life today, this is what Mary Jo says:

When I’m not working at my jobs I spend a lot of my free time looking up things and learning things. I wanted to learn sign language a couple of years ago, so Mom signed me up for a community education class in sign language. I learned a lot, and then I went to the library and checked out DVDs on sign language and learned even more. I love to use it when I meet people who have a hearing disability. Now I’m working on learning Italian. I know how to use my laptop and iPad and the Internet, and have found some good sites for learning languages. I have learned a lot of Italian, which is nice since my brother’s wife is Italian and Mom and I are planning our third trip to Italy this spring. I have also traveled to Germany and France and many of the states in the U.S. I love to travel.

As for her goals for the future, she says:

I want to go to college and I know of programs in other parts of the country. Mom and I helped with a movement to advocate for college education for people with intellectual disabilities in North Dakota. One college, Minot State, has started a program for this. My goal is to get into some college classes eventually.

I don’t think Mary Jo has any idea of what it would be like not to be “included.” We were on the cutting edge of the inclusion movement and she has benefitted greatly. Her life is enriched by being an integral part of the community and the circles in which she functions. For that we are everlastingly grateful.