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

The Doors Are Opening:
Mary Jo's Story (Part 1, 1996)


Virginia Esslinger , Mary Jo's mother, contributed this article in 1996, and the family lived in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The 1996 Impact issue on inclusive recreation and families introduced readers to Mary Jo, one of the young people who, along with her family, was breaking new ground for social and recreational inclusion in community and school. Below is her story from that issue as it was told by her mother Virginia Esslinger.

As I drove up to the school door, Mary Jo said, “I go by myself; you stay here!” I inquired, “Do you remember where the meeting room is?” to which she replied an emphatic “YES!” So I remained in the car as my vivacious, dark haired, dark eyed, 11-year-old daughter, who happens to have Down syndrome, bounded out of the car and closed the door. As she was getting out of the car, three of her fellow Girl Scout troop members were getting out of their cars and coming toward the school door. I heard, “Hi, Mary Jo”, “I like your new glasses.” I watched as they all walked in together and headed to the junior Girl Scout meeting.

Every parent wants his or her child to be involved and socially accepted. Those of us who parent children with disabilities want this for our children as much, if not more, than parents of children without disabilities. Sometimes, for our children, it doesn’t come easily. When Mary Jo first joined a Brownie troop, she was fortunate to have a troop leader who was very matter-of-fact and accepting of the fact that Mary Jo had Down syndrome. Mary Jo truly loved being a part of a Brownie troop, so when she was too old for Brownies, she “flew up” to junior Girl Scouts. There was not a troop at her grade level in her neighborhood school where she is fully included in a regular classroom, so she was assigned to a troop in a neighboring school. The leaders were accepting of her; however, at times, they seemed a bit tentative about dealing with her. Then one evening, a member of the Rural Recreation Integration Project (RRIP) (a collaboration of the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department) spoke to all of the Girl Scout leaders. The next day, that leader told me about what they had heard and how helpful the information she provided had been to them. Both leaders now actively find ways to make sure that Mary Jo is fully included in all activities of the troop and seem much more comfortable with her. This is important, I believe, as the girls in the troop will take their cues from the leaders. If the leaders model acceptance and ways of including Mary Jo, the girls will learn from them and act accordingly.

The girls seem to accept Mary Jo as a member of the troop. They always greet her, include her in games and activities, and assist her when she needs (and will accept) help. Mary Jo truly enjoys being a part of the Girl Scout troop. She always remembers the meetings and is excited about going. She is learning to interact socially with children outside of her own school, is learning the discipline provided in the Girl Scout program, and is learning all kinds of other things from speakers and activities.

One evening last year, we received a call from Mary Jo’s gym teacher at her school. The teacher said that they were just finishing a unit on gymnastics and she noticed that Mary Jo had really enjoyed it and seemed to do quite well, given her gross motor delays. She suggested that we consider enrolling her in a gymnastics club to continue with gymnastics. She met us at the gymnastics club and introduced us to the coordinator. They explained that they both had been taking classes provided by the RRIP and were looking for children with disabilities to enroll in gymnastics. Mary Jo has been involved in gymnastics continuously ever since. She has made gains in motor ability, balance, coordination, and self-discipline, and has met many other children from around the city. We believe that her gymnastics experience contributed to her ability to, finally, learn to ride her bicycle without training wheels. The most important factor is that she truly enjoys gymnastics. She looks forward to going and participates fully with the other children in her classes. Had it not been for her gym teacher participating in the RRIP, Mary Jo may have missed this wonderful opportunity.

There is no question in our minds that the RRIP has had a positive impact on Mary Jo’s life. Although she has Down syndrome, she has goals and dreams just like other children. Her goals include living as independently as possible in this community and doing all the things that other people do, like working, having friends, and having fun. The relationships she is forming and the relationship skills she is learning through recreational activities are very precious and important to her and to us. We know we will not always be around to advocate for her. Her friends and the community will have to help with that by having inclusion as an integral part of life. The RRIP has enhanced that process, and in some cases, begun that process. The doors are opening and Mary Jo wants to go through them with her friends.