erikaDuring my pregnancy I had all the dreams and wonderings of what my child would be like, as all parents do. I had heard the trials and tribulations of other parents ahead of me on their journey of raising children. Then we received the news that our first child, Amara, would be born with health challenges and an extra 21st chromosome causing Down Syndrome.  Our immediate focus was on her health and survival. We had frequent doctor appointments, hospital stays, and therapists helping us through the early years. It was easy to get lost and loaded down with the day-to-day, and it felt impossible to dream and wonder about the future.  

At age 3, when Amara entered the school system and a few of our health challenges had stabilized, we were able to start looking at and wondering about what we wanted our daughter’s future to look like. Around that time we created a vision statement to help guide our path through Amara’s education, to act as our “lighthouse.” It keeps us on course through turbulent waters, and reminds us to look ahead even when it feels like we are surviving a current storm. At that time we decided an inclusive education was important to our family. We wanted Amara to be part of a community, and to experience friendships and relationships with people of all abilities and interests. 

We visited many schools, both public and private, looking for an environment that would align with our vision for Amara’s education. When City Neighbors Hamilton opened right down the street from us, we felt we had found our right fit.  Amara began kindergarten at CNH, and as with all children and all schools, there were a few growing pains. We had to work as a team to make sure Amara was getting what she needed while also interacting and participating as part of the classroom community. It was nice not having to answer the question “Why is she here?” like I had so many times before at other schools. It allowed us to get right to the work that needed to be done and focus on problem-solving ways to meet Amara where she was at that time–all while including her in classroom lessons and activities. 

There have been many moments at CNH where I have felt the success of Amara’s inclusive education. There are school projects, play dates with friends, and the joy of hearing Amara read out loud for the first time. One time in particular stands out to me, a time where I just felt something click. Amara loves to dance, and she frequently will dance around at home. We had watched in prior years during the school’s annual Winter Arts showcase while Amara’s classmates danced on stage and Amara stood in the center like a deer in headlights, afraid to move and struggling to keep up–and every year hoping she would come out of her shell and perform with her peers. I vividly remember hearing Beyonce’s “Freedom” playing and seeing Amara come out on stage. She struggled, but she kept up with the steps and danced through the whole song with her class. I had to stifle my ugly cry from coming out. I was so proud of her hard work to overcome her fear and difficulty with learning the dance steps.  I shared an embrace with the principal and many other parents who had watched Amara’s early struggles and who also shared in the joy of her success that day. 

Erika Coughlin, Parent & Board President, City Neighbors Hamilton