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Omaha Magazine

Special Journeys

Feb 22, 2024 11:30AM ● By Carol Nigrelli
special journeys adventure omaha magazine march april 2024

Lexi & Tom Mann

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Twenty-nine-year-old Autumn Yender was born with the odds stacked against her. Diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy, Yender lives in a well-appointed, immaculately kept group home at Village Northwest Unlimited, a private facility for adults with disabilities in Sheldon, Iowa. She could easily spend her days participating in the slew of activities offered on the sprawling, bucolic campus.

She could—but this Iowa woman has found a field of dreams outside her community.   

Once a year, Yender embarks on a trip with her devoted mother, Sheila, a nurse who travels as her one-on-one caregiver. The two loving companions, part of a large group of disabled travelers, have enjoyed several shows in Branson, Missouri. They’ve listened to country music at the famous Opryland in Nashville, thrilled at the theme park rides in Dollywood, and clapped to authentic Smoky Mountain music. They’ve marveled at the hot-air balloon races in Louisville, Kentucky, and basked in the sights, sounds, and sun at Disney World, returning home loaded down with as many Magic Kingdom souvenirs as their luggage could contain. 

Autumn, who is verbal and ambulatory, has joined hundreds of disabled Midwesterners leading fuller lives through Special Journeys, the Omaha nonprofit changing perceptions about special needs one trip at a time. It’s a vacation experience fueled by the passion of its founder, Lexi Mann. She doesn’t mince words extolling the capabilities of the people she serves and loves. 

“Society has a picture of special needs that they’re sitting in a wheelchair, isolated and drooling. We’re constantly trying to overcome that mentality,” emphasized Lexi, looking over at her husband, Tom, an attorney and computer programmer. “People with disabilities are more ‘normal’ than most of ‘normal’ society because they can transform the lives of everyone around them.” 

Tom, the organization’s director of operations, picked up on Lexi’s thoughts. “The average client that goes with us is mild-to-moderately developmentally disabled,” he explained. “Many hold community jobs, working in grocery stores or restaurants.”

With every word and gesture, Lexi talks about the disabled with the fervor of an evangelist. In fact, she and Tom met while both worked as youth ministers in their native Chicago. They married in 1999. Less than a year later, the couple moved to Omaha when Tom got a technology position at a large law group. He suggested to Lexi that she earn a college degree. In 2004, she graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a bachelor’s in broadcast journalism. 

But the degree didn’t quench a burning desire to help the disabled, a seed planted years before when she took a summer job working with special needs adults. She also loves to travel. The two passions led Lexi to reassess her priorities after she graduated. She went to Tom and said, “Let’s start a company.”

While Lexi did the legwork, Tom took care of the legal aspects of creating a nonprofit. The inaugural trip of Special Journeys saw a small group travel to the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota in 2005. Tom didn’t join Lexi on trips until two years later, when finances allowed him to leave the legal profession. 

Special Journeys serves the disabled from Nebraska and four surrounding states—Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and South Dakota. The travelers pay for their own trip, whether by bus, boat, or plane. 

And, oh, the places they’ve seen! 

Over the last 20 years (except for a two-year hiatus during COVID), the Manns have led groups to all 50 states. They’ve toured such far-flung places as Copenhagen, Denmark, and Saint Petersburg, Russia; groups have taken cruises on the Caribbean, the Baltic, and the Panama Canal; tours have also sample the cuisine in Cuba, the colorful splendor of Spain, and relived history at the original Olympics venue in Greece.

Tom and Lexi average two trips a month. They also spend hundreds of hours planning every detail of each trip. 

None of this would be possible, however, without volunteer travel companions. Volunteers travel for free, needing money only for snacks and souvenirs. Each companion assists a group of three or four travelers who don’t need a 24-hour caregiver. They talk with them and assist with tasks like choosing items on a menu, souvenirs at a gift shop, or what to wear in the morning. Travel companions have their own hotel rooms and require rather simple qualifications.

“You don’t have to be a licensed health care worker. Our medical staff has the licenses. You just have to have a heart for others,” Lexi said. Between trips, Lexi managed to earn a master’s degree in Christian Spirituality from Creighton University in 2014. 

The travelers have had a profound effect on Sheila Yender, who cared for Autumn, the youngest of five children, until she turned 18. Sheila’s gratitude for Special Journeys has led her to volunteer as a nurse on 23 trips—and counting. “I get my purpose back from them,” she said with emotion. “I get my compassion back from them. I get more out of the trips than I give.”

 With the help of selfless volunteers, Tom and Lexi Mann have worked diligently to redefine what constitutes a “normal” life. In the process, they have opened the world to remarkable possibilities.  

For detailed information on upcoming trips, to apply as a volunteer, or to donate, visit specialjourneys.org.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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