Mahomet Girl Scout troop to use cookie money to help friend

MAHOMET — Girl Scout Troop No. 2941 may only be in its second year of cookie sales, but already the 13-member group is living out the Girl Scout Promise to help people at all times, including one of their own.

Meet Elena Oertwig, the troop's newest member. Unlike her fellow Girl Scouts, Elena arrives to troop meetings in a wheelchair.

The 6-year-old was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder, which mom Genifer Oertwig said mainly consists of "motor planning problems."

"She can understand everything that's said to her but that communication back out. The output is a challenge," Genifer Oertwig said. "She's nonverbal, non-ambulatory and doesn't have fully functional use of her hands."

But there's one more thing about Elena: "She just loves to take part in everything just like all of her peers," Genifer Oertwig said.

That's exactly what fellow Girl Scout Aria Sheets, 7, loves to do with her — "helping her out and playing with her," she said.

So when cookie coordinator Sunny McMurry asked the girls in a recent meeting what they would like to do as a community project this year, the first-graders looked no further than their pal Elena for inspiration.

"I just said, 'When Elena goes off to the playground, what does she do?'" McMurry said. "One of the girls said, 'Somebody gets to push her in a wheelchair,' and I said, 'OK, what about the swings or the playground equipment?' And they said, 'Well, there isn't anything for her,' and I thought, 'Exactly. She doesn't have anything to play on at the playground.'"

Suddenly it clicked.

The Girl Scouts remembered an adapted swing they spotted in a nearby park since many of them live in the same area. Chair-like in its structure, the adapted swing is usable for children of all abilities.

"I said, 'What if we had something like that on our playground for Elena?'" McMurry asked.

Their response?

"They just loved it," she said.

But Elena wasn't at that meeting. She and her mom were at another appointment, so when they returned the following week, the girls broke the news.

"They were like, 'OK, let's recap what we talked about. What's our community goal?' And the girls said, 'Getting an adapted swing for the playground!" Genifer Oertwig recalled.

"And of course I was so touched and I had to really try and hold back tears," she said while laughing. "I was like, 'Don't let me cry in front of these kids!'"

Troop leader Abbey Houser turned toward her and mouthed, "It was all them. All of the girls came up with it."

Genifer Oertwig was taken aback.

"It was just really sweet and amazing," she said. "And of course, Elena is very excited about it."

Genifer Oertwig coordinated with Mahomet-Seymour schools' physical therapist Kathryn Rose to see if the adapted swing would even be a possibility at the Middletown Prairie Elementary School playground.

"I was so overwhelmed when she told me because it was like, 'Oh my gosh! How stinking sweet is that?'" Rose said. "That's why I love this community."

"When I told (Principal) Wendy (Starwalt), she was like, 'Whatever money they don't raise, we will find the money somewhere to get this done,'" Rose added. "She was like, 'That is so awesome!' She was super supportive."

The current 6-foot bay swing rests in the middle of the elementary school's playground. Rose had just two requests when it came to implementing the girls' sweet gesture — it should be inclusive for all children and it must be installed in the current bay, not a separate structure.

"We are all inclusive," Rose said. "It's (the adapted swing) a universal design that anybody can use. It's for everybody."

Middletown Prairie Elementary School will look to purchase the $917 adapted swing from Nutoys Leisure Products, the same company that supplied the existing playground equipment, once the Girl Scout troop raises the necessary funds following its cookie sales, which end March 13.

The swing will be suitable for children 5 to 12, but Rose reassured the school will be able to adapt to even a preschooler's size with a simple insert.

Rose knows the adapted swing will be an instant hit with Elena.

"She'll get to experience all of the therapeutic values of being in a swing and being able to do it independently rather than have two adults hovering over her to keep her safe," she said. "That's what's way cool — she'll be included and it won't be a segregated type of thing."

The inclusivity is something that's super meaningful for dad Mark Oertwig.

"It's totally different from when we were in school," he said. "I rarely ever saw any of the special needs kids. I didn't even know their names."

Elena's setup couldn't be more opposite.

"They've all just been amazing and they all try to include her in things," said Rachel Sheets, mother of Girl Scout Aria Sheets.

"Sometimes they swarm on her," she said while laughing.

The interaction between Elena and her peers is "just way cool" to see, Rose said.

Rose often works with Elena during recess, where dozens of children each day are excited to play with her.

"The kids will say, 'Elena kick (while playing ball)!' and sometimes it takes her just a little bit longer to process," Rose said. "And then they wait and they wait and then she kicks and then they get so excited and then she gets so excited."

The bond formed between Elena and her peers is priceless.

"It's just so awesome to see her friendships," Rose said. "It's not like when they're pushing her wheelchair they're doing things for her — they're doing things with her. They really are. Whether she's working on some paper or activity, they want to be her helper. They want her to be successful."

So when Genifer Oertwig decided to sign Elena up for Girl Scouts after watching older sister Olivia, 8, enjoy her troop's activities, the girls' reciprocation to not only accept her daughter but make sure she's included in all things was "heartwarming" and "touching."

In fact, the girls even thought of Elena in deciding what they as a troop could do to celebrate the end of cookie sales. They settled on an outing to Champaign's Elevate Trampoline Park — a first for Elena.

"I can't say that I'm surprised because all of our neighbors, the whole community, has always been very open and thoughtful," she said. "I just feel like that's part of Mahomet being all-inclusive. And the schools — that's what they exemplify for their students, that's how their program is set up."

And while the girls hope to see the adapted swing come to fruition, Genifer Oertwig is just so happy to see the Girl Scouts including her daughter.

"I think that's what's so special about it is that they look at her as a peer, and they're eager to do things to accommodate her so that she can join in the group and do everything with them," she said. "I think that's a real testament to their parents, their families, their values, the community's values and the school."

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