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story.lead_photo.caption Debbie Hamler, executive director of the Special Learning Center, with the center's playground in the background. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Debbie Hamler is executive director of Jefferson City's Special Learning Center, a private, nonprofit United Way agency that provides early intervention services for children with developmental delays and disabilities.

She worked part time for a year for one of the center's predecessor schools; two schools merged in 1984 to form the Special Learning Center. She's been working at the center ever since.

"I just never really started out knowing I was going to work here my whole career," she said. "I had started out as a learning disabilities teacher and a kindergarten teacher, and then when we moved back to Jeff City, I wanted to work part time because I had young children."

After the merger, all the positions available became full time, but "by then, they already had their hooks in me and I loved the children and what I was doing," she said.

"It just seemed like the perfect career choice for me because it was all the things I loved and had sort of been prepared for in my schooling and former jobs."

She thinks about her work at the Special Learning Center as a ministry as opposed to a job.

Growing up, she wanted to be a teacher, "which is funny, because I'm not really a teacher; I'm a director now," she said. She was a math major in college but realized she was too much of a people person to go into computer science like many people told her to do.

"Part of it, you set out to do on purpose, but you have to realize that things that happen to you in your life are teaching you things you're going to need in your future. All the opportunities and all of the things you take part in from being very young to when you're grown up and getting that job, all those things make you who you are."

The center serves more than 600 children a year, versus 25 children or so at the time of the merger, she said.

Q. Who has invested in you and your career?

A. Her family and husband, Norman: "They've been very actively involved with my work always. My grandchildren even volunteer here. My children used to volunteer when they were younger." She has eight grandchildren with another on the way, by her three children.

"I think the Jefferson City community is very invested in the Special Learning Center," she said in terms of support for her inextricably interwoven workplace and career.

"Who doesn't want to help a person with a developmental disability? So really, it's been an easy place to work as far as when we need something or when we need financial support, or just any sort of support," because the community is apt to contribute.

Q. What choices have you made to invest in yourself and your own workplace?

A. "I don't really think about myself very much. I get up every morning and I pray, and I'll pray that God will lead me and guide me in my day. So I can't really say that I took this job and then looked for the future and saw what we are. I could never have done that myself."

She credits her board of directors and staff, many of whom have 20-30 years of experience.

"We constantly are in a fundraising mode because it costs a lot of money to buy equipment and things for these children."

Q. Of what professional achievement are you most proud?

A. "I guess I'm just feeling happy and blessed that we're able to serve the children with developmental disabilities in our community, and we are still providing wonderful services as we did many years ago, and that we've grown so much to reach out to other communities and counties that touch Cole County."

They serve children in every county that borders Cole and send therapists to outlying school districts. Other small schools bus children to the center from places like St. Elizabeth, Tuscumbia, Iberia and Eugene.

Q. What do you see as the biggest issues facing women in the workplace?

A. "In my experience, I haven't really seen any issues. I work in a very secluded, safe environment, so to speak. We're not in the 'real world' is what I say."

"I would love to have a male early childhood special ed teacher or some therapists who are male," but "a lot of times in the field and professional areas that I need to hire (from), I don't find men" — she mostly has female employees.

The center does have male volunteers available, she said.

Q. What drives you most in life and in your career?

A. "I do everything very prayerfully. I guess my driving force is to try to do what I believe I'm supposed to do, and I try to be guided the Lord. It's really great to be connected to a place where you really know you're doing the work you're supposed to be doing and God is looking out for you."

She's a member of the First Assembly of God church in Jefferson City.

Q. What advice would you give to a woman entering the workforce?

A. "If you can find a job that you really enjoy doing, something that maybe is your passion, then you really aren't ever working a day in your life.

"Follow your dreams and your passion. Any job can have that, if that's what your passion is."

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