Special needs couple overcome 14 years of obstacles to wed

Craig Blackburn and Heather Hancock have had myriad obstacles and a lot of distance to overcome to make their relationship work. Despite that, in so many ways, the couple couldn’t be closer.

Blackburn, a Luling native, and Hancock, who lives in Oklahoma, were each born with Down syndrome and are advocates for people and children with special needs. They met almost 14 years ago, in July of 2002, at a National Down Syndrome Society Conference in St. Louis, Mo.

A friend of Hancock’s introduced the two. For the rest of the conference, they were inseparable, attending a basketball game for a first date and promising to keep in touch. They each kept that promise, forming a long-distance relationship and traveling back and forth. For the first of those trips, Blackburn traveled to Oklahoma City with his family to escort Hancock to prom.

The Hancocks opened their home to Blackburn and his mother, Pat Ehrle, for the weekend so that both families could get to know each other.

They’ve been together since then, culminating in a commitment ceremony between the two on June 7 of this year, the result of a nine-year engagement and a something neither family was certain would ever come to fruition for reasons beyond the couple’s control—but one that made both Blackburn and Hancock very, very happy.

“Heather was always the one,” Blackburn said. “She’s very loving, caring, and she respects me. When I walked Heather down the aisle, I had the biggest smile on my face.”

In 2007, Blackburn, secured permission from Hancock’s mother and father to ask for her hand in marriage.  Plans to propose were underway—and he was going to make the moment count.

He decided to make his big request at the NDSC Conference in Kansas City, Mo. With 14 of their family and friends in attendance at a dinner outing, Blackburn excused himself to Hancock. The others began to form a circle around their table.

“I knew something was going on. I stood up,” Hancock said. “Craig walked back into the dining room and he told me he loved me and that he had from the start. He dropped to his knee … I was so surprised and was so deeply in love with him.

“I didn’t know that night would come. I said yes, of course. I was so happy. He makes me feel like I’m the greatest person in his life.”

“It was gorgeous,” Ehrle added. “It really touched everyone’s heart.”

That settled the engagement, but a wedding itself would create a few more obstacles to overcome. There are significant challenges that individual’s with special needs face that others don’t in this area. One issue was distance.

Benefits like Social Security and States Waivers also complicate matters. When Blackburn and Hancock marry, Social Security benefits are reduced by 25 percent, especially significant to Blackburn and Hancock, given neither of the two earn high-income salaries, Ehrle noted.

Also, when either Blackburn or Hancock moves from their state, they will lose their waiver services. Blackburn was on a waiting list for 14 years and began receiving the Waiver when he was 24. The Waiver has enabled him to have transportation, which permits independent living and a typical life style like others his age.

“He’s probably even more social than you or I,” Ehrle said. “He’s so active in his community. Losing (the waiver) would be significant.”

Still, the prospect of their children being unable to marry and fulfill their dreams didn’t sit right with either of their families.

“The goal of both of our families is that (Blackburn and Hancock) are able to lead as typical a life as possible,” Ehrle said. “We knew we had to find a way to make (a wedding) happen.

“Heather saw her sister get married. Craig saw his aunt have her wedding. That’s when it started becoming really difficult for them to understand, ‘why can’t we have this?’” So they came up with a solution: on June 7, the two exchanged their vows at a commitment ceremony on the beach in St. Thomas. Sixteen family members and friends who joined Hancock and Blackburn on a Caribbean cruise from Cape Canaveral to the Dominican Republic, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico and Grand Turk. The wedding party and guests departed from the ship in St. Thomas, where Hancock and Blackburn exchanged vows on the beach with a reception at a beach restaurant and later that day returned to the ship.

“It’s a dream come true,” Blackburn said. “It happened because both of our families got involved and wanted it for us. I always knew I loved her. I’d do anything for Heather.”Hancock said the ceremony was very emotional.

“I started to tear up when he was reading his vows,” she said. “When it was over, I didn’t want to let him go. I never want him to leave because I know I’ll miss him so much.”

But the two lovers had to separate again after the wedding cruise. But this time, they were able to separate with the knowledge that it’s only a temporary parting of ways.

Blackburn and his parents plan to move to Oklahoma to finally be with his longtime love on a daily basis within the next year to year-and-a-half, following Ehrle’s impending retirement. At that time, Ehrle and her husband, Ken, who is retired already, will move to Oklahoma with Blackburn and thus be able to help him commute from place to place and fulfill his other day to day activities, alleviating the problem he would run into without his waiver.

“I love that I’ll be able to see him every day when I wake up,” Hancock said.

The two already share plenty of passions, including their love for working in the community and advocacy. The two travel every year to Washington, D.C. for example, to speak on behalf of children with special needs. They’re also each motivational speakers.

“We’re so proud of both of them,” Ehrle said.

Ehrle said she hopes the story of her son and Hancock, who Ehrle said she considered to be like a daughter to her long before the vows exchange, will bring light and hope to others in a similar situation.

“We hope their story can bring awareness and bring hope to others who are children with special needs and their parents, so they can see that this is possible,” she said.


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