Cindy Hamblen Is Building Lifelong Bonds.

by | Apr 2024

CNDY HAMBLEN has dreamed of having “special friends” since she was a little girl. But not just any friends — those who have differing abilities. For the last 45 years, Hamblen has been a special education (SPED) teacher in Sumner County Schools, with 40 of those years at Whitten Elementary, and the last five as the lead instructor for the Project SEARCH program. She has also been the cheer coach for Station Camp High School for the last 15 years and, unbelievably, has also worked for the Hendersonville Parks Department (HPD) since 1979. Clearly, Hamblen sees a need and fills it.

“My whole life has been dedicated to my ‘special friends’ and giving them opportunities at the HPD that didn’t always exist, such as our RAPTORS Special Needs sports program with basketball, baseball, and kickball. I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” says Hamblen. “I have always wanted to teach special education since I was 12 years old. I feel they are so compassionate about life, will always be there for you, and once you get to be a part of their life, they will always be a true and loyal friend. I still have connections with many students that I began teaching back in elementary school as far back as the fall of 1978.” 

Hamblen began working part time in 1979 for the HPD directing the Kiddie Kamp program, and now serves as the recreation program coordinator. She creates activities such as the RAPTORS sports program, which stands for “Reaching Athletic Potential Through Organized Recreational Sports.” She also plans events such as the preschool track meet, Special Needs Easter Egg Hunt, KIDS CLUB summer program, Breakfast with Santa, Special Friends Visit with Santa, and many others.

As the lead instructor for Project SEARCH at Welch College, Hamblen says, “This program is a work-based learning program where special needs students who are aging out, or who have graduated, learn work skills, life skills, and soft skills to prepare for getting a ‘real’ job. It is a one-year program, and we search for jobs for them — hopefully in an area of their interest. It’s a collaboration with Sumner County Schools, Welch College, the ACCESS program, and Voc-Rehab. 

We teach students how to handle conflict and how to get along with co-workers, how to interview, budgeting, and help them become responsible adults that are a productive asset in their community. This is year five and most of our student interns have gotten a job, and are still working, or have taken it upon themselves to move to other jobs that they felt were better suited for them.”

Hamblen credits her husband, Henry, and her four children — Dustin, Jordan, Jacob, and Kirby — as well as her assistant for the last 40 years as the reason she has accomplished so much and been able to wear so many hats.

“My biggest cheerleader would be my family, who always let me give my time to the special needs community, and Janet Baucom who was my assistant at Whitten Elementary and has worked by my side not only in the school system but also as my assistant in the summer program through the HPD. She has been my supporter, my friend, my confidant, and the person who always kept me level-headed and in my place, which was a big job. She’s the kindest person and is always thinking of others over herself and gives great advice.

“My biggest academic achievement is taking my desire to work with the special needs community and using it to help shape their lives in so many ways — yet having them shape my life in many more ways than I could imagine. I’ve loved seeing their parents become friends and confidants as their children socialize and get to have experiences that used to not be available here.”

In 2014, Hamblen was nominated and became a semi-finalist for the Kelly and Michael Live Show for the Top Teacher Award. More recently, she was placed on the Wall of Fame through the HPD. Now that she’s a grandmother of five, with another on the way, Hamblen sees a glimpse of retirement peeking through the clouds. For her, the silver lining will be finding just the right person to continue the work with her “special friends.”

“If you have a desire to work with SPED, jump all in. Know there will be times of discouragement, take advice from fellow teachers, be willing to make changes — the good will outweigh the bad times — and know that with the special needs community, you are making friends for life.” GN 

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