Pay It 4Ward

On Christmas Eve, I had to run to the grocery store to pick up a few things. Consequently, I joined a hundred other last-minute shoppers who stood in long cashier lines, checking their phones, reading magazines and people-watching while they waited. I stood long enough to observe a five-minute scene that occurred a few feet from me, and because it was Christmas Eve or perhaps because it mirrored a piece of our future—one that sometimes overwhelms me—I smiled through tears. A young man with special needs was unpacking boxes, pulling gum and candy bars from inside and carefully arranging them on the shelves next to the check-out. He was quick and careful and cleaned up the boxes as he moved through his work. I didn’t even realize he had special needs until another employee—a nice-looking man maybe in his fifties—came over and started talking to him. The older man mumbled something near his ear and they both laughed and shared a fist bump.

“How ‘bout I take one of these boxes and help you out?” he offered. “I’ll start on the other end and meet you in the middle.”

The younger man smiled and agreed. Not but a minute later, another employee—a woman—came up and laid her arm on the young man. I admit, at this point I was completely sucked in and eaves-dropping.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” the young man answered.

“I saw you had your head in your hands earlier,” she went on, “—and I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. If you have a headache, you can go sit in the break room for a little while and then come back out and finish later.”

“I’m fine,” he replied.

She touched his arm gently and smiled. “No problem, just so you know that’s okay.”

I moved ahead in line, paid for my wine and plant and left, later regretting that I didn’t say something to those two employees—to simply let them know that, as a mom of a child with special needs, I appreciated how well they demonstrated inclusion in the workplace. They weren’t condescending, they weren’t impatient, they weren’t overly syrupy with praise or supervision. They were kind and supportive, valuing that young man’s contribution and friendship no different than any other employee would expect.

In two weeks, we will celebrate Nella’s fourth birthday.

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I feel like we’re off the “Go” space on the board game now, away from the security of “just let me enjoy these first few years of no worries” and venturing into the next squares that lead to that curvy path of more unknowns. Unknown is not a scary word in itself though because, who knows, maybe what isn’t known are amazing things, good things, things we couldn’t have even imagined.  There are new stories every day of individuals with Down syndrome going to college, getting married, finding meaningful employment and living independently.  I do know that facing the unknown for the future of Down syndrome and walking this path of raising a child who is labeled as different is made so much more hopeful knowing that we’re not alone—that others join us in challenging stereotypes, demanding change and promoting inclusion and acceptance.

For the past four years, you all have been a been a big part of that, and there is no way I can express to you how grateful we are for your support. You’ve e-mailed your stories, you’ve shared how your perceptions of Down syndrome have changed, you’ve read and commented and supported our mission in so many ways. While I didn’t create this blog with the purposes of advocacy or fundraising, you’ve jumped in and followed along when we’ve taken that direction. Thank you. Thank you.

Throughout the past four years, we’ve designated Nella’s birthday as a time to give back. We’ve chosen the National Down Syndrome Society as the recipient of our fundraising efforts, and through Nella’s ONEder Fund, the 2 for 2 Fund, Nella’s Triple Crown and two t-shirt campaigns this year, you’ve helped us raise a total of $260,409 to benefit the over 400,000 individuals living with Down syndrome in the United States today. These funds allow the NDSS to provide Down syndrome education and support services for the general public, run the national Buddy Walk program which promotes community awareness, and continue efforts to shape and move forward a legislative agenda that will help individuals with Down syndrome live with economic independence.

This year, we’re celebrating Nella’s fourth year with the Pay It 4Ward celebration. To help us celebrate her birthday and the many other individuals with Down syndrome, please consider supporting the NDSS by donating to Pay It 4Ward. We’ve accomplished incredible feats with donations made from caramel macchiato sacrifices.  We’re excited to do it again.

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We know that dollars are important in funding programs and helping to provide support for families, but we also know that awareness goes beyond that. So many of you have shared ways in which you’ve changed your perceptions or stories of how you’ve gone back to your communities to promote acceptance, and I’d love to hear and learn more about things each of us can do in our communities—as simple as recognizing and applauding organizations that demonstrate inclusion in the workplace, as I wish I would have done in the grocery store that day.

Sure, these things should be happening naturally and continually in our society without recognition, but they aren’t happening enough. We need more voices and more support. What can you do? You can pledge to find a Buddy Walk this year. You can find out the name of the individual with Down syndrome who works at your coffee shop or grocery store and make it a point to talk to him every time you’re there. You can research to find a special needs support group in your area and volunteer your services, your gifts (photography, tutoring, etc.). Find events for adults with special needs, and get involved.  Collaborate with leaders in your churches to create socialization opportunities that unite individuals of all needs.  When you see inclusion taking place in education, in sports leagues, ballet classes, etc., let these organizations know you appreciate it! Especially if you don’t have a child with special needs. We are a feedback driven society. Inclusion will continue to happen, creating more opportunities for growth for all children, but not without our support and demand for it.

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We’re asking you to share the ways you are promoting acceptance in your communities by using the hashtag #payingit4ward in social media and tag me (@etst on Instagram, @KelleHampton on Twitter) and @NDSS. Make others stop to think about this too. And teenagers! We need you! Your voices are powerful and loud–more than you know.  Your friends are listening. Give them something to think about.

This little girl has brought so much joy to our home. We prepare for her future and excitedly join others in paving the road for all of our children’s tomorrow by making efforts today—speaking up, reaching out, spreading awareness, shouting from the rooftop that different is beautiful. It really is.

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Thank you again for your support these past four years—for growing with us as we learn more about acceptance, challenges and most of all, love.

Help us Pay it 4Ward to celebrate these four years. We’ve come a long way—from a dark room in a hospital where we didn’t know how to begin to this celebratory, thankful place…full of hope. 

Click on any of the photos in this post to be directed to Pay It 4Ward.


Leave a Comment
  1. I am so proud of you Kelle– and co. Big giant hugs from here to there, we will spread the word.


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  3. Nella’s birthday is my favorite thing about dreary January. I love seeing extra pictures of her — seriously so beautiful!

  4. I will also have a 4 yr old in just a couple short weeks (the 25th). The time goes by so fast!!

  5. Thanks for all you do! you bring a lot of people together:)

  6. I hope this doesn’t sound like a cliche. Nella has forever changed the way I look at people with Down Syndrome. I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded, but I realize now that I always interacted with people with special needs with a certain degree of fear…I guess of the unknown? Now I feel like I know them somehow, as I feel like I know Nella and your family through your book and blog. Nella — and the way you love her — makes the world a better place. Thank you for sharing her with us!

  7. I can’t believe it has been 4 years already!! My son will be 5 in May and it just doesn’t seem possible!! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog these past 4 years. Thank you for being an awesome advocate for Ds!! Karen Hattaway

  8. How is it possible she is 4 already?! I donate every year to her birthday fund and will again this year. Happy happy Birthday Nella :)

  9. I will be donating again, as well. I have had the opportunity to spend a little time with a young boy with DS in recent years, and had a dear friend when I was little that had severe DS (non-verbal). As a child, I only knew that she couldn’t talk, but we played just the same.
    Thank you for all you do, Kelle, to raise awareness, which really boils down to treating all human beings with love and dignity. Hug that sweet Nella for me.

  10. What a gorgeous girl, she’s getting so big!!

  11. As a Special Educator and soldier in the Battle for Inclusion, THANK YOU! I would give up my salary for the rest of my career to work with parents like you…parents that care.

  12. I was just thinking about Nella’s birth story earlier today. They way the doctor told you ‘She’s beautiful and perfect.’ She really is. I love reading your words and looking over pictures of your beautiful family. I don’t usually comment, but this post aligned with my thoughts earlier. Your family has changed many perceptions for me and I appreciate your strength and willingness to let us all in. Happy Birthday Nella!

  13. Kelle, In this year since my aunts passing I have made a real true effort to continue her friendship and live of an adult special needs lady in her 70’s. In today’s world she would have grown up, and learned more than she has. She cannot really read except for numbers. But has wisdom beyond words! And what beautiful puzzles she makes! I do love her and in return I get unconditional love as well.
    On another note. Do you have, perhaps, a po box that I could send something to Bella?
    Keep the faith and keep sharing! Love to all and Happy Birthday to Bella!

  14. I am so sorry my little phone keyboard allowed me to say Bella and I didn’t catch it. Of course, Happy Birthday to Nella!

  15. Kelle, In this year since my aunts passing I have made a real true effort to continue her friendship and live of an adult special needs lady in her 70’s. In today’s world she would have grown up, and learned more than she has. She cannot really read except for numbers. But has wisdom beyond words! And what beautiful puzzles she makes! I do love her and in return I get unconditional love as well.
    On another note. Do you have, perhaps, a po box that I could send something to Bella?
    Keep the faith and keep sharing! Love to all and Happy Birthday to Bella!

  16. I am so sorry, Kelle, that I did not correct my phone spelling. Of course I certainly meant Nella!

  17. Thank you for raising awareness. I love your blog.

  18. Hi Kelle, you should read Beck Gambill’s Be the Tour Guide blog/post. I saw it on the International Down Syndrome Coalition Facebook link. I think you will like it. Take care.

  19. Kelle, I love your stories and your beautiful outlook. Nella’s adorable face makes me smile, and your tireless advocacy of children with special needs is inspiring. Keep writing. Keep doing what you do.

  20. Nella is lucky to have you as a mother, as you are to have her :)

  21. Nella seems like such a sweet spirit, and she is lucky to have a family like yours. Can you talk a little more about the specifics of what NDSS does with the funds? How do they support the families and raise awareness? What kind of support? Thanks!


  22. Kelle, I am writing this through tears of love and a warm glow in my heart. I honesty don’t remember how I found your blog, but I’ve been following you for years now. No, I am not the mom of a special needs child, but I am a mom of 3 beautiful girls. I tell them about and show them your posts quite often. You and your family have touched my heart and opened my eyes and brought new understanding and hope to my life. You are all so special and what you do with your words, Kelle, touches so many lives and improves them in too many ways to list. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  23. That really warms my heart. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Law Enforcement Torch Run benefiting Special Olympics, but my husband is in law enforcement and participates in this every year and they are doing a polar plunge in the city where he words to raise money for Special Olympics!

  24. Because of you and your blog, I too, have found myself trying harder to smile, interact with or talk to anyone I see with special needs as opposed to shying away like I may have in the past. Thanks for teaching us about life and love. BTW, I say you write a letter to the manager of the grocery store, telling them about what you saw and how much it affected you. Those employees deserve to be credited and I’m sure, would love to hear how their everyday acts of kindness so positively affected you. Just a thought :). Happy Friday!

  25. Oh Kelle, your grocery store story had me in tears. I think I’ve shared before on your Instagram that I was a manager in a grocery environment who had some really awesome and special staff working for me. If you could see how that store rallies around these individuals and values them, you would know for sure what good things lay ahead for your girl. I left my job this summer to be at home with my girls and I miss my staff so much. Chris and Carissa and Brian brightened my day every day. They worked hard and I always knew I could rely on them. Inclusion really is the answer because there is nothing like getting to know someone who is ‘different’ then you and realizing that really, we are so much more the same then we would have ever realized.
    Blessings and love from across the country to your sweetheart. Thank you for sharing a little bit of her with us.

  26. Can’t believe Nella is already four years old! How time passes! Still loving to come here and read about her and your family!

  27. I wish I could articulate how much this post means to me. Thank you for continuing to spread DS and show how amazing those with Down Syndrome really are. I am a sister to a brother with Down syndrome … And he certainly changed my life. My family has been struggling thru a really rough patch at this point in in his development, and hearing your Xmas eve story and reading your words helped my heart today. Cheers to Nella and another awesome year to new discoveries!!

  28. Kelle, I have tears in my eyes over something that happened to me while reading this and I HAD to share it with you.

    I am one of those whose perceptions of DS has changed because of your blog. I am ashamed to admit that in the past, I would notice the differences FIRST. But now I know that people who might look a little different are still exactly the same and I notice those differences a lot less.

    My niece just demonstrated this to me. I was reading this post with my 3 year old niece on my lap. She asked, “Who is that?!” I said, “Her name is Nella.” She said, “I like Nella! I want to play with her and go to her house and play with her toys!” Then she looked sad and said, “But she lives too far away.” I just about cried. I wish that every person had the same outlook my young niece does. Nella, and everyone else, deserves it.

  29. I often forget Nella is different from any other (almost) 4 year old. As an instagram follower and blog reader, all I ever think is what a beauty she is! Happy almost birthday!!

  30. Thanks for sharing Nella (on the blog and in real life) – for the hope she gave our family when we desperately needed it three years ago, and for the smile she gives us now. Happy birthday, Nella! Love, Ellie (and Megan and Matt)

  31. A beautiful post. I love the story you shared with us about the supermarket employee. There is a man that works at the local Target. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen him there recently… but he collects the carts and brings them inside. AND HE LOVES IT. He always has a huge smile on his face and most of the time, he sings a little tune. He always says hi to you when you walk by and wishes you a great day. And he always offers to help you put your bags in the trunk… Actually, he just comes along and helps. He’s awesome. Inclusion definitely makes me smile big! Wishing your family all the best and Nella a bright future. With all the support she has, I know it will be!

  32. I’ll be Paying it 4ward as you all have really truly (I’m not kidding) touched my life in so many ways. I just love this little girl- her little giggles in your videos… I just know I was meant to “know” her- I truly see the world of special needs, and notice and am aware and less afraid, you could say, because of Nella.



  33. I had the pleasure of waiting on a table last night. The mama had a Buddy Walk shirt on and we got to talking about her son with DS, your blog, Nella, your fundraisers, and your advocacy for DS. It’s nice to feel that connection and feel the love in your heart that you express so well for others to feel as well. I hope that I can find the time to do the Buddy Walk this year!

  34. Kelle….
    “They weren’t condescending, they weren’t impatient, they weren’t overly syrupy with praise or supervision. They were kind and supportive, valuing that young man’s contribution and friendship no different than any other employee would expect.”. I loved your story!! I actually read it twice!! ;-D
    “Unknown is not a scary word in itself though because, who knows, maybe what isn’t known are amazing things, good things, things we couldn’t have even imagined.”. I am stealing this!! 😉
    Question. Does attending college, or getting married equal success? Because. There so many individuals out there who have neither attended college nor found True Love. Some with special needs. Others who are “normal”. And they’re not any less successful in life!! I {Who live with learning disabilities!!} have not attended college. {I do not wish to!!} Nor am I married. However. God has plans for each one of His children!! Me? I am a writer!! Unpublished. But I am a writer!! And I’m currently creating children’s stories!! While I completely understand all of your worries. {I do have a loving Mom who can totally relate!!} Heedless of where Life takes Nella {I love that name, by the way. May I use it for a future children’s story character?} college or marriage do not, in my book {No pun intended!!} determine success. God has great plans for Nella’s future. And Lainey’s. He has great plans for my future!! Food for thought…. 😉
    $260,409!! Wow, just wow. ;-D
    That picture of Nella with the Pay it 4Ward bubble!! Her facial expression looks so much like you!! 😉
    “Different is beautiful…. I can’t but agree!! ;-D

  35. Thank YOU for sharing your sweet Nella with us. I’ve never known someone with DS in person. I have followed your blog for a long time. I have inspired me. Now have lots of DS friends! Our local grocery store hires DS for help. I started saying “Hi” “Your doing a good job” “Love your cool shoes” etc. They know my name, they know everyones name. David may come over for dinner next week, after his mom calls me. I’ve never taken the time before to say Hi, How are you, until I started to read you blog. I’m so glad I did!

  36. This, raising a child who is labeled as different is made so much more hopeful knowing that we’re not alone—that others join us in challenging stereotypes, demanding change and promoting inclusion and acceptance. is the best part of being connected by these interwebs. Starting this journey feeling so very alone & waking to the realization that there are so many of us on the same path. Thank you for all that you do!

  37. Little miss Nella is such a ray of sunshine…you are such a blessing to those little kiddos, and them to you, I’m sure! Thanks for always being so honest, and raw with your writing. It brings everyone hope!

  38. Wow! Nella is getting SO big!! What happened??? Love your blog and pictures! As the mother of a 17yo daughter with cerebral palsy, I hear you! Your book sent chills through me time and time again. Thanks for the gift you give us all as your readers!

  39. In Finland there’s been a pretty popular show called “Different Friends” that depicts the lives, friendships and loves of people with down syndrome. I believe it has raised great awareness. There’s also a punk rock band in Finland whose members all have down syndrome, and there’s been a high acclaimed documentary about them as well. I recommend checking these out. It might give you even more hope for your daughter’s future.

  40. People keep telling me to connect with you on this! We work with special needs kids here in collier county and many high school kids are volunteer leaders for the ministry. Would love to,connect with you and talk about teaming up…same passion…same needs! our special needs program is called “capernaum”

  41. Can’t wait! Brenna and I have some ideas cooking….

  42. My son and I went to a dinner fundraiser where you have dinner with the Cal State Fullerton Baseball Team (If you follow college baseball they are usually quite good) There were two men who joined the dinner with down syndrome and watching how much they loved the baseball team and how the baseball team knew them by name was amazing. The players complimented their outfits and dance moves and when they won raffle prizes they ran to the players and hugged them and the players and everyone clapped and cheered for them. At one point one of them walked passed my son and I and came up to show us his pictures from the photo booth that he took. He was by himself in the pictures but had so much fun! My son (who is 8) said I am going to ask him to takke a picture with me before we leave. He went and asked him and they took pictures. When we got in the car my son said that was one of the coolest guys I ever met. I asked him why he took pictures with him and he said, “I felt bad he was taking pictures by himself…but when we got in the photo booth to take pictures together I didn’t feel bad anymore. I felt happy. He didn’t take pictures by himself because no one wanted to take pictures with him. He took pictures by himself because he has fun!” I looked at him and said, “I think you will do big things some day helping people!”

  43. Thank you for using your skills of photography and words to tell the story of your beautiful family and allowing your family to touch others to make this world a better place. Thank you!

  44. How can Nella be so beautiful? Your pure heart with love overflowing reflects in her. I thank God for the life of Nella that blesses so many others and I thank God for you who responded to God’s call. Blessings to you and your family.

    You are an inspiration.

  45. I can’t believe she’s 4. I guess I’ve been reading your blog now for 4 years. Where does the time go? She is so precious! Thanks for sharing your story which continues to bless my heart!

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