Ellie Wenger at age 3 with her dad. A miniature of this photo appeared on ADN's newsletters for many years.
Elise (Ellie) Mariel Wenger was born in 1998 in Goshen, Indiana, the second daughter of Curt and Sherry Wenger. Experiences in raising little Ellie inspired Curt and Sherry to join the effort to found Anabaptist Disabilities Network in 2003.
Today, Ellie is seventeen and a sophomore in high school, and her sister, Olivia, is a first year pre-med student at Goshen College.
As a teenager, Ellie’s life is quite full of activities, but she and her mom took some time to bring me up to speed recently.
Ellie's favorite class in high school is photography, she told me. Most recently, she completed a photography project on unusual architecture, but she also enjoys taking photos of people. She and Sherry had fun creating photos of Ellie that were patterned after other photos and even one like the painting of a young girl by a famous artist.
Like any busy teen, Ellie participates in many things outside of school. She is in “Girls on the Run,” an after-school club where members learn about healthy bodies, healthy snacks, and exercising. Ellie has been part of “Girls on the Run” for the last several years, and most years, they finish up the season by joining in the 5-kilometer walk-run event. Unfortunately, this year Ellie has a schedule conflict.
Another highlight is attending “Shoots Club” nearly every month. This social event, named after the Shoots Building where they meet, is sponsored by ADEC, a local agency that provides services for people with disabilities. One of the best things about the club, according to Ellie, is that she can go there to have fun with friends, and her mom and dad don’t have to come along.
Other activities in Ellie’s busy life include her church youth group at Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship, her family’s church small group, and traveling. Ellie likes to travel a lot, and she named Oregon, California, Illinois where her grandparents live, and Pennsylvania, as a few of the places she’s been. “I like to ride in big planes!” she exclaimed when asked her favorite way to travel.
During the summer, Ellie attends a day camp for persons with disabilities that is sponsored by ADEC. She rides a bus to a high school in nearby Elkhart, where she and her friends enjoy craft activities, swimming, bowling, and even go to a splash park. Ellie has also attended a weeklong summer church camp for the last four or five years at Amigo Centre in southern Michigan. Rather than attending a special camp for kids with disabilities, Ellie enjoys going to “regular camp with regular kids.” She stays in a cabin with an extra counselor for her cabin group.
Another favorite in the summer is swinging on a swing. "At our old house, we had a huge swing set that I liked to swing on a lot,” Ellie remarked. Now at her family’s new house, they just have a porch swing and a hammock chair. But, Ellie told me, she is glad that the neighbors have swings at their house that she can use.
Ellie also enjoys watching movies and television shows in her room, just as many teenagers like to do. She told me that she likes The Big Bang Theory, I Love Lucy, Disney’s That Darn Cat, and the Parent Trap (the old version with actress Patty Duke).
Sherry and Ellie also recommend the movie “I am Sam” starring Sean Penn. In the film, Penn plays a cognitively-impaired man raising his young daughter who is not impaired, and the story depicts their father-daughter love and relationship beautifully, said Sherry.
Ellie also loves jokes and humor. She has lots of joke books and loves playing April Fools jokes on her family and friends. “What goes up and never goes down?” Ellie asked me. “Your age!”
Another big activity in Ellie’s life is going to dance class at Dance in the City in the old Goshen Theatre. Ellie said that she has been going to dance class for a long time, and they dance to all kinds of music from Hip Hop to Jazz to the song, “New York, New York.”
Kathy Nofziger Yeakey is Executive Director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network.
Ellie is looking forward to their dance recital in May, when about ten young people in the dance group, many of whom also have some disabilities,will all be wearing red outfits with black tights and black hats. For “New York, New York”, they also get to use canes!
Ellie had open-heart surgery recently, just after my interview with her, to replace valves in her heart that she had received as an infant. Before the surgery, Ellie told me that she was looking forward to the hospital, because she would be able to order whatever she wanted from the cafeteria menu. Sherry reported to me that Ellie’s surgery went well. She is now recovering and looking forward to her next dance class.