In a world that measures success in titles and wealth lies a realm of warmth and acceptance filled by families and individuals touched by Down syndrome.
In a world that measures success in titles and wealth lies a realm of warmth and acceptance filled by families and individuals touched by Down syndrome.
Tess Hubbard

Charity Issue: Maren’s mission

Journey of Love

In a world that measures success in titles and wealth lies a realm of warmth and acceptance filled by families and individuals touched by Down syndrome. While having a child with Down syndrome can be a family’s biggest blessing, it also comes with its own hurdles. Since children with disabilities often develop at a slower pace compared to other kids, they might fall behind when it comes to their academics and social life. Jennifer Bensinger, parent of The Maren Fund, describes that parents of children with disabilities often grapple with a plethora of concerns, from societal perceptions to navigating uncertainties about their child’s future. The Maren Fund’s aim is for parents to be able to worry less about their child’s development and focus more on embracing the journey of love and resilience their child brings.

The Maren Fund helps families with disabled children by providing learning opportunities for both the child and the parents. They do this by offering classes that help the students further their academic skills and educate parents on how to support their child’s needs. Julie Williams, founder of The Maren Fund, started the organization around 16 years ago. Williams said after realizing her daughter, Annie, who has Down Syndrome, was going to need extra help outside of school, she was inspired to create a community that would help other families and individuals with the same struggles. 

Founder of The Maren Fund (Tess Hubbard)

“It was pretty clear to me by the time Annie was about three, that there were going to be some gaps in her education, and her ability to read and really understand math or math concepts,” Williams said. “I was kind of worried. I felt like she was going to need more support outside of school, and that we would have to do it at home. But I had no idea how to even do that.”

Williams’ background is not in education, so trying to understand the learning process of children with disabilities and create curriculum for them did not come easy to her, she said. The program started with nine kids, but after their success, they quickly realized they needed to share their resources with the rest of the community. The Maren Fund not only focuses on academics, but social skills too. Once a month on Friday nights, the students participate in activities to help them become more comfortable with the community. 

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“They go to Dierbergs, break up into groups and are given shopping lists,” Williams said. “Then they have to go out and find the food, buy the food [and] use their money [and then] they all come back together and have dinner with what they bought.” 

Maura Jackson, Director of Children’s Programs and Services, has worked with The Maren Fund for 15 years. She originally taught early childhood special education for 10 years, in Melville, and then Chicago, all the while driving in on the weekends to work with The Maren Fund because she enjoyed it so much. 

“[My favorite part about The Maren Fund] is that the kids stick around for so long,” Jackson said. “We really get to know them [since] we have programs from when [they were] little itty bitty babies all the way up to adulthood.”

Jackson expressed that The Maren Fund constantly prioritizes building the confidence of their students and leaving an impact on them by always making sure they know their worth. Being around kids that have the same challenges as them can help with doing those things.

Annie holds up bidding number (Tess Hubbard)

“Our biggest thing is that our kids are always learning, we are always learning as teachers, [along with] the parents [that] are always learning [new strategies],” Jackson said. “And then the other big thing we have actually painted on the wall at the office is assume your child is able.”

Jackson emphasized that with the Maren Fund, their core is having high expectations. They stand by the idea that each one of their kids will be able to have high academic skills as long as they’re given the appropriate instruction.

Jennifer Bensigner’s son, Logan, has been a part of The Maren Fund since he was five years old. Logan was non-verbal, but can now say full sentences and Bensigner gives all the credit to The Maren Fund program. 

“I love to see when he’s happy,” Bensinger said. “[That] brings me joy [because] I like him to have pride in what he’s accomplishing. So even if he just gets his name written on the paper [and he’s] super excited to show me, [I] want him to feel pride for that.” 

Williams said keeping up with education is so important for kids with Down Syndrome because if they aren’t always utilizing their academic skills, they can easily lose them. The Maren Fund provides amazing opportunities and joyful moments, and Bensinger said that many families wonder how they would live without it.

“[I want to say] to new families that have a baby with Down Syndrome, that it is the most awesome adventure they’re ever going to be on,” Bensigner said. “Julie and I joke about this, that it’s a club neither one of us wanted to be in, but we’re so glad we are.”

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