BRICK – Gabriella Clark enjoys the same things many seven-year-olds do: swimming, dance lessons, and playing with friends and with her sister, Jordan, 5.
Gabby’s mother Jennifer Hartman said that when she was pregnant with Gabby she had some complications, and was in and out of the hospital at 26 weeks until her daughter was born by C-section at 34 weeks.
“She was 5.2 pounds and completely normal, and then the doctor said ‘I’m sorry, she has Down syndrome,’” Hartman recalled recently from the living room of her Cherry Quay home.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “She was my baby, and luckily she didn’t have a heart defect as many with Down syndrome do. She didn’t need any special checkups or anything, so we continued on with life.”
“Gabby” was just named ambassador for a New Jersey Down syndrome organization called “Nothing Down,” which seeks to change the way the world views people with Down syndrome and to change the conversation about intellectual disabilities.
Down Syndrome is a chromosomal condition that occurs when someone has an extra copy (or a partial extra copy) of chromosome 21. The nucleus of each cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, half of which are inherited from each parent.
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, the extra genetic material alters the course of development and causes Down syndrome characteristics, such as low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes and a single deep crease across the center of the palm.
In the U.S., one in 700 babies are born with Down syndrome, or 6,000 a year, making it the most common chromosomal condition.
Gabby is considered to be non-verbal, but understands everything and is learning sign language. She is in second grade at Drum Point Elementary School in a classroom for children with multiple disabilities.
She loves school, especially gym and art, and she loves her teacher, Michelle McNeary, and the three paraprofessionals in the classroom, Miss Sue, Miss Sharon and Miss Linda.
Hartman said she began to follow “Nothing Down” on FaceBook when the organization was started three years ago by Julie Willson and Shannon Daughtry. The organization has produced 14 video projects and their photo series has been shared by over 100 million people.
Nothing Down has formed an International Ambassador Program and has 37 Ambassadors across the globe who have become the face of Nothing Down. Their message is “There is Nothing Down about Down syndrome.”
According to co-founder Daughtry, Gabby was chosen as an ambassador from over 500 children and adult applicants.
“In the end, we chose the families that showed the most dedication to Nothing Down, our mission, and who show a lot of passion of advocacy,” she wrote in an email.
She said Hartman has done a great job of sharing Nothing Down programs and has always shown enthusiasm by applying for the different projects and getting people excited and involved in the organization’s events.
“And on top of all that, Gabby has a smile that can brighten anyone’s day,” Daughtry wrote.
Gabby has a FaceBook page called “Gabby’s Journey,” and Hartman said that Gabby has brought the whole family closer since the day she was born.
“She’s just like any other kid, it’s just a little difficult because she doesn’t talk,” she said. “She has no issues in school at all – when we walk in everyone says hello to her.”
Sometimes when they’re out, Hartman said she can hear parents telling their children not to stare at Gabby.
Her advice? “Just go up and say hello and make friends. She’s just a typical little girl who wants to play and do everything they want to do,” Hartman said. “She’s just a little slower. Treat them like anyone else,” she said.
The mission of Nothing Down is to provide support, advocacy, education and opportunities for individuals and families that have been touched by Down syndrome.
For more information, visit nothingdown.org.