By Michael Bromka Katie Pierce is an avid athlete. When the high school pool is open, she swims ten laps every morning. Weekends she’s in a youth bowling league in Artesia. With fellow athletes, Katie will cycle year round through basketball, track and field, swimming, bowling and poly hockey, depending on the season. She keeps agile and active for her team competition in Special Olympics.
These days, with coronavirus concerns eliminating many of Katie’s normal activities, she is an active supporter of “Bear Hunts.” Katie and her family members have encouraged their friends and neighbors along Thomas Street and across Carlsbad to join them in placing stuffed bears in their windows. An 18-year-old junior at Carlsbad High School, Katie is a special needs student with Down syndrome. This chromosomal condition, noticeable at birth, results in lifelong cognitive and physical challenges. Katie’s mother is Dr. Jane Pierce, an entomologist with NMSU’s Agricultural Research Station south of Artesia. Jane and husband Eric cherish the individuality of each of their five children, of whom Katie’s the youngest. Social distancing is not an activity Katie would choose. Lately, she asks when she can go see friends at Blue House. Often, Katie is fast-talking and chatty. Her speed and verve can surpass articulation. Such times, it’s easier to fathom her upbeat mood than discern its verbal details. “We understand 90% of what she’s saying, especially about everyday life that we see and do together,” Jane Pierce said. “But relating a nightmare, or a segment of America’s Got Talent, a show she loves? If we haven’t seen it too, her line of reasoning is harder to follow.” “There’s a cliche that people with Down syndrome are always happy. That’s not true. Katie’s human. We all have moods. She’s not by any means happy all of the time.” “She has things she likes or dislikes -- just like every person. She’s very social -- perhaps part of the cliche that for many is true. She’s outgoing. Summed up, Katie’s a joy. She just is. I can’t imagine life without her.” Eric and Jane swap off driving to Artesia for Katie’s Special Olympics and bowling. He and Katie enjoy what he calls “companionable silence together.” With Jane it’s a different story. “Katie talks constantly about what’s on the radio, family, childhood memories, friends, restaurants, what’s up at school, trips to plan. When driving gets hectic I sometimes have to say — Katie I’m sorry. Can you not talk for 30 seconds? I need to focus! Eric never has that issue.” With coronavirus concerns, her parents forego Katie’s usual trips to the supermarket. Instead, Jane drew a map of downtown with ten businesses marked. This list of shop names represents a treasure hunt. Match each name from list-in-hand to shop-on-street. On her first try, Katie went from Wells Fargo to her hairdresser Danny’s Salon, to Carlsbad Physical Therapy where she gets P.T. in the summer, to Cat’s Meow, to the Artist Gallery. She focused on each business sign. By the time she reached the Lucky Bull, its most obvious adornment got overlooked. Locked into the task of matching sign-to-list, Katie breezed by the iconic sculpture. Katie has a hidden gift for reconnoitering. At “The Pit” in Albuquerque (a sprawling sports arena), Katie and family were attending the UNM graduation of siblings Michael and Emily. Eric had escorted Katie up a circuitous route to the women’s restroom. At its entrance, he then patiently awaited her reemergence. Unbeknownst to Eric, the restroom had a second entrance/exit door. Mere minutes thereafter, Jane heard Katie say – “Hi, Mama!” Where’s your father? He’s back at the bathroom. Holy cow, how did you find us in The Pit? Katie sat with her brother Andrew, while Jane sought out Eric, patiently waiting. “I’m still astounded she was able to do that!” says Jane. “Eric didn’t realize. He just figured Katie was taking her time. So, she has a sense of situation, geographically.” This brings us back to the Bear Hunt. Back in her year at Early Childhood Education Center -- ECEC -- Katie had loved a book, song, and routine entitled “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen. Online, Jane learned of a related child-friendly movement in response to the coronavirus quarantine. Children in other cities are ‘hunting’ for stuffed bears in windows as they walk their own neighborhoods with family. Each participating household puts a stuffed animal in its window for passersby to notice. For extra fun, they might fashion a poster with the animal’s name plus artwork. Most stuffed animals are bears. Other creatures are allowable. Name and artwork add distinction. A short walk in search of bears becomes interactive -- but not infective. Thus, Katie placed her Rainbow Bear and artwork in her family’s front window on W. Thomas St. Other neighbors have followed suit. As well, some homes already had outdoor Ruidoso-style bears carved from wood for kids to see and count. If the seeker adds visible flamingos, turtles, frogs, sun plaque, weathervane, roadrunner, and an owl (to name but a few on W. Thomas) -- a menagerie numbering two dozen can accrue. Katie Pierce, currently housebound with Rainbow Bear, hopes soon to see all students run free, swim strong, and bowl strikes in every healthy lane of life. She’ll be there among them to share game, race, and ensuing conversation.