Don’t ask Debbie Hamler how retirement is going.
After 35 years with the Special Learning Center, the majority of which she spent serving as executive director, it was announced earlier this year that Hamler would step away from the administrative role, with Stephanie Johnson, former chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City, taking over the position.
“I’m totally trusting her with my baby,” Hamler said, as she talked about how excited she was for Johnson to come in.
But from the start, the change wasn’t about stepping away from work or even the Special Learning Center itself. Hamler hasn’t retired. She simply moved away from one job in order to give her full focus to fundraising to ensure the future of the Special Learning Center.
“I am staying with the Special Learning Center 100 percent,” Hamler said. “My focus will move to the SLC Foundation and fundraising, as well as planning a new building for our future growth.”
From the very beginning of Hamler’s career, the Jefferson City native was always looking to work with and help children. She studied elementary education and math in college, starting her career in south Texas where she taught kindergarten for, as she says, “six whole weeks.”
“And then, guess what happened?” Hamler asked. “They didn’t have enough children for me to have kindergarten class.”
So the school district found another use for her skills – coordinating the district’s math program. Just out of college, Hamler had already been thrust into a leadership position.
“I was the only one they could find that had all that math background,” Hamler said, laughing as she recalled the challenge she faced in her first year of teaching.
But she met that challenge, as she continued in that position for two years when she was offered the opportunity to get a master’s degree in special education learning disabilities. Hamler spent a summer taking graduate courses and hearing from educators from all over Texas who explored subjects such as sensory integration and dietary habits, and how those things affect children and their development.
“I learned so much in that summer,” Hamler recalled. “It was amazing.”
That fall, when she returned to the school district in south Texas, she was no longer the math coordinator. Hamler was now the learning disabilities teacher that the district needed in the wake of new legislation in the mid-1970s.
It was a good experience, Hamler said, but she returned to Jefferson City shortly after and continued her master’s work at the University of Missouri. When she went to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she was quickly informed that her new background qualified her to become the second person in the state to be certified in the emerging field of early childhood special education. But even so, it wasn’t long before she was packing her bags again, this time heading to Denver.
“My husband liked to moved a lot,” Hamler said. “Every two years, he wanted a new location.”
In Denver, Hamler found work at a private school where she worked with children who had developmental disabilities and those who needed special education. The school had a lot of children with behavioral issues and Hamler said she was put in charge of the entire school’s program, at multiple locations.
“I don’t know why people kept putting me in these in charge position when I was like 21 years old and knew nothing,” Hamler said laughing. “But there I was again.”
And again, the experience was a good one. While in Denver, Hamler got pregnant with her first child and her employer could not have been better. Hamler said she was allowed to work from home and the school even bused several teens to her home so she could work with them in person, while caring for her newborn.
“That was really, really good,” Hamler said.
Two years after that, Hamler was pregnant again and decided against continuing full-time work. She found a part-time preschool teaching job instead, and then, two years later, was pregnant again. This time, her husband was working for an oil company and accepted a transfer to what Hamler described as a “teeny, teeny town in Utah.”
“When (the school district there) heard I was coming and I was a learning disabilities teacher, they contacted me and wanted to know if I would like to be their learning disabilities teacher,” Hamler said, which she ultimately accepted.
But Hamler was now a mother of three young children and not entirely comfortable taking on a demanding role. So she found a local speech pathologist who was willing to share the job and convinced the administration it was the best idea.
Hamler’s experiences trying to find flexible solutions to working while having time to spend at home with her young children have helped shape her leadership style. She found employers who were willing to work with her and find new, maybe even non-traditional, methods, and Hamler said she has enjoyed providing a similar work environment for others while leading the Special Learning Center.
“As the director, I tried to be very bendable and to make it work with people because those are huge things to do for people, especially when they’re raising a family,” Hamler said.
After two years in Utah, the family packed up once more, but this time it was Hamler’s decision.
“My mother … she came out to visit us (in Utah) and had a heart attack,” Hamler said. “She was going to have to have a bypass.”
Being a 30-hour drive away from her parents no longer seemed feasible. Plus, Hamler said, her husband’s father was having health issues at the time as well and lived at the Lake of the Ozarks. It just made sense to come back to Mid-Missouri. Even with three young children and no jobs lined up.
“That was like a brave decision,” Hamler said.
But it wasn’t long before Hamler was working again. In 1985, she took a part-time job at what was then the Goshorn Handicap Center in Jefferson City, where she started as the preschool teacher. After one year in the position, she became the center’s director after the previous one left the position.
Once again, Hamler found herself quickly placed in a leadership position shortly after joining a team. And more changes were coming.
In the mid-1980s, the Goshorn Handicap Center merged with the Peter Pan School to create the Special Learning Center. Hamler said she wasn’t part of the merger board, being considered an employee, and a new person was brought in as executive director for that first year, though she left after that.
Hamler was soon offered the position and she quickly went to work building relationships with the parents and board members of the previous Peter Pan School. After some time sorting out the realities of the merger, things began to take shape.
“I would say, after that second year … we became the Special Learning Center and we were well on our way and very appreciated,” Hamler said.
In 1991, under Hamler’s leadership, the center built and moved into a new facility, where it has grown to serve more than 700 children and reaching more than 20 outlying school districts to provide early childhood special education and therapy services.
Hamler is eager to credit the work of area families in the early days of both the Goshorn Handicap Center and the Peter Pan School, as both were started in the 1950s, which was well before it became common to provide those types of services for children.
“These two entities were started in the ’50s by families and parents, just remarkable people,” Hamler said. “I think Jefferson City was way ahead of their time. … Jefferson City really has made their mark in helping people with disabilities.”
And that’s continued to today. Hamler said the Special Learning Center has always been blessed with a great community and amazing supporters. She recalled one year when the center was in the red financially, and a man walked in the door with stock from his company saying he wanted to donate it to the center.
“I just could have cried. It was right before Christmas and it was going to be the first year we were going to run in the red and I was just going to cry,” Hamler said. “And it was amazing because then, we were fine.”
But what really stands out from a more than three decade career in Jefferson City are the children.
“My favorite memories are my children,” Hamler said, adding that she keeps photo albums of the children she’s worked with as they grew up. “Just watching an infant come in with their parent, and watch them evolve and even now today, see that same infant as an adult and still have a relationship with them. … You just develop these really tight friendships and you just see good in so much.”
Hamler said she has been able to see so many wonderful things happen at the Special Learning Center, getting to watch and be a part of a child’s success story. They’re memories she wouldn’t trade for anything.
“You see things like that and it just makes your life worthwhile,” Hamler said.
In transitioning to her new role, Hamler said she is simply trying to put all her focus on fundraising, which used to be a part of her job as executive director. But as the center has grown, it became harder to both run the day-to-day administrative needs and try to raise millions for the center’s future.
And there’s a lot to be done. The center has outgrown its current facility, Hamler said, and there’s an opportunity to build a new facility, alongside an all-inclusive park, on a plot of land owned by the Everett D. and Geneva V. Sugarbaker Foundation. The foundation has offered to give the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department 13.5 acres of land on the west side of town near Memorial Park and the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
While no final decision had been announced as of late October, Hamler was very positive on the future for the Special Learning Center.
“We are being given an amazing opportunity to develop a new location to serve children with developmental disabilities in Mid-Missouri,” Hamler said. “This is an exciting venture and we will need the help of our awesome community. SLC staff and children will always be a priority in my life. This is a new opportunity for all of Jefferson City.”