WALNUT CREEK — Little girls dream of finding true love, marrying and living happily ever after.
Christi Hockel was no exception.
The youngest of six, she watched her older siblings find mates. She caught bouquets at their weddings and yearned for the day when she would have her own magnificent ceremony.
"I kept saying, 'Boy, I wish I had a husband who loves me,' " said Christi, 31.
Her family and friends were not so sure her dreams would come true because Christi has Down syndrome, a condition that delays mental and physical development. Christi's mother, a devout Catholic, prayed to St. Thérèse of Liseux to find out if her daughter's romantic longings would be fulfilled.
"I opened my eyes and there on the floor was a single wrapped rose," Judie Hockel said.
Christi's mother saved the tiny fabric flower, believing it to be an answer to her prayer.
Christi's family helped her accomplish many goals: finishing high school, attending community college, performing in plays, working at Safeway and volunteering at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.
They also encouraged her to join the National Down Syndrome Congress, where she could socialize and become a self-advocate. It was through this organization that Christi met the love of her life: Austin Davenport of Dallas, who also has Down syndrome.
"I went to this convention in Minneapolis in 2003 and I fell in love with Austin," Christi says.
A handsome, outgoing young man with a playful sense of humor and a talent for tearing up the dance floor, Davenport was attracted to Hockel's bubbly personality, blonde hair and mesmerizing dance moves.
The pair lived more than 1,700 miles apart, but maintained a long-distance relationship for several years. Christi lived in an apartment above her parents' Walnut Creek home and Austin lived in Dallas.
They talked on the phone and visited each other as often as possible, but realized they wanted to be together for life. Their parents had always encouraged their independence; would they help make their children's dreams a reality?
They decided to try to make it work. Davenport and Hockel exchanged vows Oct. 10 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Concord.
Judie Hockel placed the fabric rose in Christi's bridal bouquet and watched her daughter walk down the aisle.
"It is a happy day and it is filled with hope and promise," the priest told the guests, before uniting the couple. "Your lives as individual people have strengthened our hope. So, we expect your married life to do even more."
Before the wedding, Hockel and Davenport had become accustomed to speaking publicly about their disability as part of the National Down Syndrome Congress speaker's bureau. Christi, who loves to act, also appeared in the organization's "We're More Alike Than Different" promotional campaign.
Many said they were moved by the wedding ceremony. Buddy Burke, whose sister has Down syndrome, said he would not have believed 10 years ago that two people with the disability could marry.
"This is real," he said, as he snapped photos of the affectionate pair. "This isn't a charade."
Christi's sister-in-law Beth Hockel, whose young daughter Monica has Down syndrome, said she does not know whether her daughter will fall in love.
"We have no idea what she'll be capable of," Beth said, holding the little girl. "But we'll support her all the way. She's just a gift to our family."
A family friend saw great hope in the union.
"They're two beautiful people and it's wonderful to see the joy that they both have," said Greg Labarthe, who has known the Hockels for 30 years.
At the reception, Christi and Austin gazed into each other's eyes while dancing slowly to the Elvis song "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You." Later, Christi sang a tribute to her parents: Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me."
It is unusual for couples with Down syndrome to wed, said Carol Heath, one of Christi's former special education teachers.
"I think she has been an inspiration," Heath said. "Not that every person with Down syndrome will get married. But, they can have a life that isn't all about their disabilities. It's about their abilities."
Since their wedding, Christi and Austin have spoken publicly about their time together, demonstrating that it is possible for men and women with Down syndrome to lead normal lives.
Austin works in the mailroom at a Dallas law office and Christi volunteers at a school. They have celebrated their anniversary each month, Christi said. They plan to spend their first Valentine's Day together enjoying a spaghetti dinner and watching a romantic movie.
"Austin is the most important thing in my life," Christi said. "He has a great personality. He's always kind and loving and very special to me. He has such a beautiful heart."
Austin, 32, said he is happy to be able to spend the rest of his life with his bride.
"I want Christi and I to share things," he said. "I love her."