When Mary Jo Shepherd learned that Barrington-based Hope’s In was offering a scholarship opportunity for a child with special needs to join one of its upcoming service trips to Guatemala, she immediately put out the word at Gigi’s Playhouse—where she oversees career development for adults with Down syndrome and other disabilities.
It seemed like an incredible opportunity for someone.
Created in partnership with the Foglia Family Foundation and the Fox Valley Fire and Safety Company, the scholarship is part of Hope’s In’s new focus on serving children with special needs in the Guatemalan communities that it has been working with since its inception.
Shepherd immediately let everyone at the center know about the scholarship, which would sponsor not only a special needs child but the child’s family as well. Then … she got to thinking.
On a personal level, she is the mother of five—Matthew, 23; Johnathon, 21; Abigail, 20; Josephine, 18; and Annabelle, 12, who was born with Down syndrome. So, she applied for her own family. Shepherd wrote a passionate letter explaining that while as a parent, she tries never to put limits on her children, Annabelle had been limited by her extra chromosome and was never able to participate in service with the rest of the family.
This trip to Guatemala City would break down that barrier.
“So often when you have a child with a disability you are told what they cannot do, and many people feel that the disabled person needs help. What they don’t see is that the disabled person wants to help,” says Shepherd, expressing her gratitude for being selected to travel with the whole family last month. ““I never thought that I’d be able to say that my daughter with Down syndrome is going on a mission trip to Guatemala. The beauty of having a disability is that everywhere you go, you see people without blinders, as equals, and as friends.”
Shepherd worked closely with the Hope’s In team to ensure Annabelle’s comfort and safety. Meanwhile, Annabelle chose a different way to prepare. “We told Annabelle that the children there speak Spanish, so she insists on watching Netflix in Spanish now,” Shepherd adds.
Courtney Quigley McGovern, who serves as executive director of the nonprofit she and her twin sister Ashley created while students at Barrington High School, says she was honored to have Annabelle and her family join last month’s mission.
One of the goals for Annabelle’s trip was to promote the idea that a humanitarian leader doesn’t have to look a certain way. A leader can be a child; even one with special needs. “These kids have just as much capability to give back, it’s just that the opportunities are much more difficult to find.” explains McGovern. “We’re so excited to be able to provide this opportunity for Annabelle and her family.”
Since founding Hope’s In six years ago, the organization has grown and expanded. Today, Hope’s In is an established nonprofit agency that is responsible for recruiting more than 375 volunteers (including many from Barrington) to build 35 houses in Guatemala. In addition to two annual service trips that bring assistance to the Guatemala City garbage dump communities, Hope’s In now creates scholarships such as this one for young people to participate is shaping the next generation of leaders.
“Hope’s In has always been a youth-led initiative,” she says. “We have a large, deeply involved intern board comprised of high school students from around the North Shore.”
McGovern and her team will also soon be piloting a program called Hope’s In Academy at Barrington High School. This service-learning course will challenge freshman students to choose one thing that they would like to change in the world, and then be educated in nonprofit management skills and ways to make that difference.
For more information about Hope’s In, visit hopesin.org.