Dover woman helping parents of kids with Down syndrome

Gail Hamblin stands with her children’s book “More Alike Than Different.” She wrote the book with the hope to spread awareness of different types of disabilities. (Submitted photos/Sights by Sietz Photography)

DOVER — Gail Hamblin never really thought of herself as an advocate until a friend pointed it out last year.

“I never thought of myself that way until someone told me,” she said.

But being an advocate had been somewhat of a conscious decision for Mrs. Hamblin, a mother of three from Dover. She recalled attending Down Syndrome Association groups when she and her husband first had their son, Calvin who has Down syndrome.

“I, of course, was focused on the older parents of the kids that were grown or almost grown and that sort of thing because I wanted to see: what’s our path going to look like?” she said.

There were two types of families, she said.

“There were families who just sit back and let things happen and didn’t challenge anything,” she said. “And then there were the moms that stood up and advocated and said, ‘No, this is not how it’s going to be. It needs to be like this’ — strong advocates. I made a decision back then, I was like, ‘Yep. I’m going to be that one.’”

Her path in advocacy for her son has taken her to writing a children’s book — with hopes for more — and the goal of starting a podcast.

Her book, “More Alike Than Different” (illustrated by a high school friend, Jenny Kopp) seeks to spread awareness of different types of disabilities.

“It’s basically a book about acceptance and inclusion and making everybody feel welcome,” she explained.

She felt there was a lack of books from the community to help “typical” families understand Down syndrome.

“There were books to tell other people this person has Down syndrome, and that sort of thing. But there wasn’t anything on the market that was, ‘OK, we have Down syndrome, but that’s not who we are. Yes, it’s a part of us but that doesn’t totally define us. We’re human; we should be loved, too,’” she said. “I wanted something that was going to cross all of those barriers.”

The book was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and was recently translated into Spanish to broaden the reach of the message. There is also an activity book that complements “More Alike Than Different” with color pages, mazes and more to use as supplemental activities when teachers use the book.

She has more book ideas in her head. For instance, several years ago, she and Calvin, now 8, attended an intensive feeding clinic. The clinic was nine weeks, with Mrs. Hamblin and Calvin away during the week in Baltimore at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. The program is intended to identify the feeding approaches for parents and children with severe feeding difficulties.

She described the experience as intense, but she hopes one day to write about the experience to walk parents through what to expect, “because it’s definitely stressful,” she said.

While she thinks of herself as a homebody, she said she keeps active when it comes to her kids. Her daughter, Natalie, 10, had joined the news team at school right before COVID-19 caused buildings to close and they kept up with filming her segments — weather and “this day in history” — for the rest of the year. They’re planning to continue their coverage over the summer as well. Her youngest, Aurora, 5, likes to be part of the filming sometimes, too, she added.

Meanwhile, Calvin participated in a University of Delaware design lab study that measured people with Down syndrome to make adaptive clothing, she said.

Gail Hamblin, of Dover, stands with her children, Aurora, 5, Natalie, 10, and Calvin, 8. (Submitted photos/Sights by Sietz Photography)

“Children with Down syndrome have shorter arms and shorter legs than their neurotypical peers. So it’s really hard to find clothing that fits. So if it fits in the waist, it’s probably going to be too long if it’s pants,” she said, adding, “That’s why I love shorts season because everything fits and it’s great.”

Shirts are the same way.

“If it fits across your chest, the sleeves are going to be too long and you have to roll them up all the time,” she said.

Calvin also has autism, Mrs. Hamblin said, so there are certain fabrics and sensory components he doesn’t like.

“We worked with the lab to find the different materials that are good for him and they were working on making adaptive jeans,” she said.

The jeans were ready for pickup right before COVID-19 resulted in heavy restrictions for the state, putting their ability to get them on hold for now.

She said she is motivated to take advantage of opportunities for her kids and added that she’s motivated for the families that come next, too.

“When they had the research study, I was like, ‘Anything for research,’ basically,” she said. “When he’s been in the hospital lots of times, they’ll say, ‘Can we come in?’ I’m like, yes, anything, I will help research any way I can because it’s going to make it better for the next family.”

Her podcast would also be focused on opening the conversation on being a special needs mom, she said, with resources that she didn’t know when Calvin was born eight years ago.

“I’m further along in my journey — I’m not to the teenage years or anything, he’s only 8 — but there’s a lot that I’ve learned along the way that if I could find it and listen to it when I was going through those things, it would have been helpful,” she said.

The podcast is temporarily on hold as life shifted in March, with everyone at home together and Mrs. Hamblin doing her work as an assistive technology manager for UD, and her kids completing their school year at home.

As a former pre-K teacher, Mrs. Hamblin has almost returned to that role in the last few months as her children have been home.

“I think it’s been easier for me than other parents that don’t have that educational background. But other times, my oldest will be like, ‘You’re not a teacher,’ I’m like, ‘But I am.’ I said, ‘I’m certified by the state to teach you, so I can handle it,’” she said, laughing.

While COVID-19 has brought some difficulties, she described the challenge of doing therapy remotely with Calvin — she feels like, “Oh, we got this,” she said. “We’re all together, we’re at home.”

She said she views life a little differently than others, though, with Calvin’s condition.

“I’m grateful for every day that we have together and that we’re healthy and we’re happy,” she said. “Yes, we’re getting through each day, but I want to make each day good if we can.”

She attributed her positive outlook to her faith.

“I tell myself, ‘They’re healthy, they’re happy, just do what you can,” she said. “I would say that it all comes back to my faith and God … that’s where I draw my strength.”

To purchase a copy of Ms. Hamblin’s book, visit NightinGailbooks.com.