For Elizabeth and Luke

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Friends.  Tonight I’m sharing someone so dear to my heart with you.  I’m inviting her into this space to tell her story, but first I’m putting down lots of pillows and blankets and asking you to come and sit and listen with open hearts and minds. 

I don’t know that I can type an intro that is worthy of the love behind my friend, Elizabeth.  The way she loves her children is magic, but the way she loves the world around her makes me want to be a better person every day.

I met Elizabeth through my blog.  I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but sometime after Nella was born, someone connected the two of us, we started e-mailing which then led to texting and phone calls, and now here we are a few years later, good friends.  To me Elizabeth is defined by her heart, the way she loves her children, her faith, her wit, her brilliant medical advice, her passion for orchestra, good yarn, teaching Sunday school and exploring the world around her with an open mind.  She also happens to be the mother of five children–one with CP, one with Down syndrome–and she’s been fighting breast cancer for five years.  Five years of surgeries, radiation and chemo. 

I asked Elizabeth last week if she’d be interested in sharing her story here.  October is both breast cancer and Down syndrome awareness month, and I knew if anyone could beautifully represent both of these, it was Elizabeth.  She lives both of them every day.

There’s another thing about Elizabeth that’s important to know.  She is a woman of strong faith.  She talks about it a lot, she loves her church, she breathes her faith into every e-mail, every conversation.  In fact, I was certain I wasn’t “faithy” enough to be her friend at first and thought maybe we wouldn’t be the best match (my judging, not hers).  But she never treated me like I needed to be saved.  Ever.  She knew we shared the same God, and she respected me and my differences.  I told Elizabeth recently that she’s a big part of my faith journey.  She’s loved me through every bit of it, always treating me like my truth was just as right as hers even though it was different.  That acceptance, that spiritual equality, that love–it’s restored a lot of my belief in church. 

I’ll stop rambling because Elizabeth’s words are more important here.  But more than that, I’ve asked her to pick a child who needs help and told her I’d ask you all to be a part of this.  You see, anyone who knows Elizabeth knows that one of the ways she’s made it through the past five years is by helping others–specifically children with Down syndrome who need families to adopt them.  So you’ll meet Luke at the end of this post.  He will melt you.  We can help bring him home.

The story of my friend Elizabeth with the Very Big Heart:

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My name is Elizabeth, I am a 47 year old wife, mama, fiber artist and retired MD living in North Carolina. The current chapter of my story sort of started when we lost our fifth child, William, about seven years ago. William had Down syndrome, orthopedic issues, prematurity, a precipitous, complicated breech delivery, and we never even got to bring him home.

We were beyond joyful when we got pregnant again the next year. In early ultrasounds we saw some signs of Down Syndrome. I was totally fine with that. We had lost a son, and God was giving us another one. I just wanted a baby we could keep, and hold, and love, and bring home to our other children. We named him George and did everything possible to keep him (and me) healthy as long as possible. The preterm labor got serious at 30 weeks but we hung in there until he stopped thriving just past 34 weeks. Because our fourth child has CP and a metabolic disorder, I was pretty desperate to avoid a C section (how do you care for a non-ambulatory tube fed child on oxygen and monitors after a C section???) so we had a long talk about risks and benefits and decided to try an induction. We had a few scary moments, but our OB never left my side for 15 hours and we had George a little after midnight on December 19, 2007. He did indeed have Down syndrome, and we immediately fell in love with our son.

George was small, weak, jaundiced, unable to figure out how to suck swallow and breathe at the same time, and we all thought he was the most amazingly wonderful baby EVER. There were some really tough times. For example, I wanted more than anything to be able to breastfeed him. I had nursed all my others at least through toddlerhood, several well into preschoolhood. George deserved that, too. The lactation consultants all gave up. But we found a speech therapist who specializes in infant oral motor issues, and after months of pumping, he finally figured it out. By 6 months of age he was exclusively breastfed and gaining weight beautifully. I sure was tired, though. Four other children, including one who is VERY medically fragile and complex, homeschooling, way too many outside activities, other challenges too numerous to mention, and a husband who worked a zillion hours a week… it was hard. But we all loved George to the moon and back.

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People would ask me why I thought God would give our family such challenges, two handicapped children, losing William… and I was never sure how to answer them. I have friends who are really smart about theological things. They know huge chunks of the Bible from memory. They can answer complicated life questions with passages from scripture and quotes from important thinkers. They can dissect doctrinal issues and defend their faith with confidence. Me, not so much.

I believe that God gave us all life as a gift to be loved and cherished. I believe that all sacraments give grace, and that participating in the Mass makes me happy. I believe in the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. And you know what? I believe that the rest of it is pretty much just details, and I figure that God can manage the details. I think that’s why I have been teaching second grade Sunday school for almost 20 years. In our church, second graders usually make their First Holy Communion. And to teach second grade, you don’t need to be able to explain complicated things, you must simply share the beauty of the sacraments, the joy of the Mass and the miracle of the Eucharist. That’s sufficient. I can do that. The hard and complicated parts? Just details.

Then our family’s life got even harder and more complicated. When George was eight months old, I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma. Just two months after finally mastering breast feeding a baby with Down syndrome, I would have to have a mastectomy and a big axillary dissection. They gave me six weeks to heal from that (and yes, I managed to continue to nurse George on the other side for those six weeks) but then we had to wean over just a few days for chemotherapy. My biggest meltdown ever was in the baby formula aisle at Target. Here I was, after pumping for months, working so hard to get my premature baby with Down syndrome to nurse, and now I had metastatic cancer and just had a major surgery and was about to start chemotherapy and then radiation and I still had five children to take care of, two of whom had significant special needs… and now I had to wean my wonderful precious baby when I worked so hard to get him to nurse?

That’s when I came closest to questioning God about all of this. I knew deep in my heart that I had so much to be grateful for. I could spend all afternoon bragging about my sweet husband. And my children. I have five children, who even though they all love George best, really like each other and are kind to each other. We have excellent health insurance, the best specialists around, and family, neighborhood and church support beyond what anybody could hope for. But still…. I struggled with the whole thing. Why a mama who obviously had so much to do to take care of her children – all of them, not just the special needs ones – would get this terrible terminal disease?

So then I started chemo. And I never figured out the why part , but I have gotten some amazing glimpses into how all the rest of it is supposed to fit together. Like this: God TOTALLY knew what he was doing when he gave me a baby with Down syndrome and breast cancer at the same time. There is NO WAY I could have been chasing a typically developing toddler while on chemo. Well,I didn’t have to chase George. Despite all sorts of therapy, he really wasn’t interested in or able to go anywhere. So we snuggled and and sang songs and spent countless hours on the sofa just loving each other. A few months later when I had to have another mastectomy and a hysterectomy, so we knew that we’d be unable to have any more children, we realized how nice it was that our last baby would truly be a baby for a little bit longer than the others….. See, God knew that I needed a baby to get me through cancer, and not just a regular baby. I needed the world’s most amazing baby… a very happy child who made everyone around him happy. An easy baby who basically stayed where you put him. A good sleeper. A baby who brought joy to his older siblings when they were under great stress because of my cancer and my surgeries and chemo…. There is NO WAY this was some sort of random accident. Even if I’m not good at the details, God was. So he gave us George. (Who is still everybody’s favorite, by the way…)

One thing that happens when you have a baby with Down syndrome is that you sort of realize that the world would be a better place if every family got to experience the blessings that we have because of George. So I was thinking about that one night, and talking to another blogging friend, and learned about Reece’s Rainbow.

That’s about when I started blogging. The basic concept was that I was blessed with this HUGE support system of family and friends who were all afraid to call me on the phone to see how I was doing lest they perhaps wake me or George up from a nap. We thought that if I blogged about this cancer journey, everyone could stay up to date, and besides, it would be a record of our family’s story for my husband and children for the future. Little did I know that my blog would connect me with the most amazing mamas ever…. some T 21 club families, some faith-filled homeschooling mothers-of-many, some ladies who are as passionate about spinning and knitting and fiber arts as I am…

But anyway, back to the story. One thing that happens when you have a baby with Down syndrome is that you sort of realize that the world would be a better place if every family got to experience the blessings that we have because of George. So I was thinking about that one night, and talking to another blogging friend, and learned about Reece’s Rainbow.   Reece’s Rainbow is a non-profit organization that finds families for international orphans with Down Syndrome and other disabilities. In many other countries, when a family has a child with Down syndrome, they are strongly encouraged – some say forced – to never bring their baby home, but to give the baby up, to put them in an institution. And this institutional life, in many cases, is very brief and very grim. Reece’s Rainbow also helps with advocacy and fundraising for families who are trying to adopt children with Down syndrome. I was amazed at what a perfect idea this is! Only certain families get to have a baby with Down syndrome, and this isn’t fair. So Reece’s Rainbow fixes this by matching up families with children. And then, not every family is ready to adopt a child with DS, or maybe they just can’t, for whatever reason. That’s not fair, either. So Reece’s Rainbow helps them by letting everyone participate in saving these lives, by advocating, or praying, or contributing financially.  No exclusions.

We obviously can’t adopt. I would give anything to welcome more babies with Down syndrome into our family, but these children need a mama without metastatic cancer. There are, however, healthy mamas with so much love in their hearts who don’t have the spare cash to fund an adoption. So it’s time to confess about my secret. We call it the DeHority Distraction principle. Late at night, when I am feeling really bad, or scared, or worried, like when they have to cancel my chemotherapy because my white blood cell counts are going down, I get on the Internet and go on the Reece’s Rainbow website and find beautiful children. Some already have families working to save their lives, some without families yet. And then, after reading about them, saying a prayer for their health and safety, and learning about their family if they have one, I anonymously make just a little donation into those children’s sponsorship accounts. It’s especially fun when they have a family trying so hard to raise money to rescue them, and all of a sudden this cash appears in the account. So they post about it on their blog or on Facebook, and often it inspires other people to contribute, and instead of watching my numbers go down, I can watch beautiful children’s numbers go up.

This is Luke.  He is currently living in an orphanage in Asia.  He has been matched with a wonderful loving family, waiting to raise the funds to bring him home.  We’d love your help in bringing this beautiful boy home to his family sooner.  You can read more about Luke and donate to Luke’s fund here.  Can you help?  Can you give even just a little bit or share Luke with others who might be able to give?

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I want to hug him.  I want to tell him that soon, soon, he will have a mommy and a daddy and a place to call home.  I want to watch from the sidelines when this boy is held in the arms of his family and finally brought home to where he will be loved and nurtured for the rest of his life.  Our family is making a donation to support Luke, and I hope you will consider giving anything you can to bring him one step closer to home.

Elizabeth is one day past chemo.  I know what that means.  She’s waiting and watching for numbers to go up, up, up while she rests. 

As always, thank you.  Thank you for being a part of this space.  For listening and contributing and caring.

Love to you all tonight.
And Elizabeth.  I know you are reading.  I love you so.

Everybody Plays 2013

Well, goodness.  I don’t really know where to begin because it’s been a whirlwind week, and there are so many things I’d love to share. 

This is the third year I’ve participated in Everybody Plays with Infantino and Step 2, and the experience is now part of me.  I learn something new and am changed a little more each year.  My cousin Joann came to San Diego with me to help with Dash, and after attending the shoot on the second day, she said, “I guess you really have to be here to understand just how meaningful this is.” 

For those of you who are new here, Everybody Plays is a marketing campaign created by a mama within the Infantino company and carried out by a number of incredible individuals.  Infantino and Step 2 have committed to recognizing that every child is unique and special, and they celebrate that fact in their marketing which includes photos of children of all abilities.  Simply put, Everybody Plays.  I’ve been honored to photograph this 2-day event every year since it began and, in doing so, have met some extraordinary families. 

If you were part of the shoot this year, I want to tell you how special it was meeting you and your children–all of you.  We had a tight schedule and lots of babies to attend to, but I remember your hugs and your stories and your children.  I saw the pride in your eyes, I felt how much you love them.  I watched you soothe them and kiss them and work hard to make sure your babies were comfortable and aware of your presence.  Some of you worked so hard, and I realize that’s a 24-hour job for you.  But you don’t ever quit, do you?  You don’t ever quit working hard and singing to them and holding them and hoping for them and fighting to change the world for them.  I felt your dedication, I witnessed your love.  That goes for all of you, whether you were a part of this event or not.  Whether your child has a disability or not.  We’re all working hard for our kids, and we need each other–our kids need each other.

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And speaking of those kids?  They were amazing.  It’s crazy how much preparation goes into an event like this–months of scheduling, permits, wardrobe, equipment, toy hauling, set-up, etc.  But then the kids come in, and it’s obvious to anyone present that they become the focus simply because they naturally steer our attention to what matters most.  Like smiling.  And making people happy. 

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On the last night after the shoot, a few of us gathered to wrap things up and say goodbye before we left the next morning.  We sat at a picnic table under twinkly lights and surrounded by happy chaos–kids running everywhere, huddles of conversation, stories from the week enthusiastically retold.  I sat at one corner of our table, smiling, trying my best to eavesdrop on as many conversations as I could pick up.  It was like air traffic control for happy thoughts. 

I asked a few moms what this event meant to them.  Jennifer, whose little Joaquin and Sophia participated in Everybody Plays, hesitated for just a moment. “I think it’s a perfect example of everything we fight for as parents,” she answered. “We just want our kid to be a kid. Everybody Plays is such a perfect way of explaining it. It’s so simple. They’re all perfect. They all belong together.”

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“What was your favorite moment?” I asked Beth, Coco’s mom.

“Tonight,” she quickly replied and smiled. “That last shoot. When Coco wrapped her arms around every other kid…”

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“That’s what this is. Everybody plays. And you know what’s funny? Coco in that shoot is really the only one who looks different. And here she is, pulling everyone together. I don’t want the people who see these images to say, ‘Look at that little girl with Down syndrome.’ I want them to breeze by and look the same way at her that they’d look at any little girl.”

I should add that Coco finished her last round of chemotherapy earlier this year, and after this baby’s tough year fighting leukemia, her smile was worth every bit of work that went into last week.

Read another mom’s account of last week here.

Of course there is extra significance behind this event for families who face challenges with their child’s abilities being recognized. But every child has special needs, and this campaign is just as important for any family as it is for ours. When marketing embraces and celebrates the fact that people are different and that’s beautiful, our children will believe it. 

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This team right here? 

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They have huge hearts. They worked really hard last week, most of them sacrificing time with their families to make Everybody Plays a success. They love kids, and they believe in the heart of this project.  As a team member, that makes me proud.  As a mom, that makes me grateful.

I wish I could show you every photo right now. There are still so many I need to go through, and many of them feature products that are still in development, so I can’t share.

A few (all photos taken in San Diego’s gorgeous Balboa Park):

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And a quick wrap-up video of last week:


Everybody plays from ETST on Vimeo.

Please join me in supporting these companies (and others like it!)–let them know you love what they are doing!  Help us spread the message of Everybody Plays–for all of our children. 

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I didn’t have time to update the blog while I was gone, so a few things from last week:

*The Be Your Tee Campaign ends tonight (Monday). You can buy t-shirts for a few more hours. We originally set a goal of selling 626 shirts that would raise $5,000 for the NDSS. You helped us surpass that. Ready? We sold over 1,900 shirts–that’s $15,000 raised for the National Down Syndrome Society. Nice way to kick off Down Syndrome Awareness Month, eh?

Also, I put together a list of my favorite dolls for little girls (and boys!) over at BabyZone: 12 Adorable Baby Dolls for Imaginative Play.

And sharing about the importance of telling our children the stories of our past over at All Parenting: The stories of our past.

Whew.  Okay.  Tomorrow is October.  Hope the pumpkin spice gods have some good things in store for all of us.

Be Your Tee!

It’s gray and hazy outside, and I’m running through a list of Monday mantras to reignite this week’s enthusiasm. It helps that there’s a boy lying on the bed next to me, fake coughing to get my attention, and when I give it to him, he kicks and smiles and his eyes squint into happy half moons. We’re enjoying a cozy work day.

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I’m working to get ahead and get ready for our trip next week to San Diego (Everybody Plays!), so I’ll share more later. But I’m really excited to help launch the Be Your Tee campaign today, a 2-week fundraising effort for the NDSS.

The mission of this campaign is to offer positive message tees for every kid. Regardless of our special needs, all parents share the desire to see their child soar.

I designed this tee for the Be Your Tee campaign, and at least $5 of every shirt sale goes to the NDSS whose mission is to promote the value, acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome (Teespring pays NDSS directly after campaign is completed).

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The “Teach Me to Soar” shirt is available in onesies, toddler and youth sizes and offered in a variety of colors.

Your child can rock this shirt with jeans, shorts, layered over long sleeve shirts for fall and winter, and it’s only $15.

Our entire clan sported theirs in style the other night.

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It’s a twofer–your kid looks cool AND tells the world, “Have confidence in me.”

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The onesies are off the hook.

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And it looks good with stripes…for the WIN.

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These shirts are available for a limited two weeks. Share any Be Your Tee love (including photos of your kids in the shirts when you receive them!) on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #BeYourTee and tag @ndss @teespring and myself (@KelleHampton on Twitter, @etst on Instagram).

Helping EVERY child Soar…a perfect Monday mantra.

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Hope the start of your week is grand!