Kirstin’s Group

Scan_20141115 (4)Other parents of children with Down syndrome have told me how their child talks to him–or herself. This seems to be a common trend. In Kirstin’s case, she perfected  it to an art form. Not only did she have an imaginary friend to talk to, she had an entire family she called “the group.” At one time, I believe there were seven members of her group. She carried on conversations with them, shared food with them, and took them everywhere she went. Going in her bedroom, she would hold the door open until everyone was in. Then, through the door, we would hear talking from many different voices. She never gave us much information about who these friends were. I did get a few names: Harry, Little Terry, and Big Terry. I was somewhat concerned about Harry when I learned that he had horns. But Kirstin assured me he was a good guy.

In a way, it seemed convenient that Kirstin always had friends. Her brother, Michael, is four years older chronologically, but if you consider maturity, there is an even greater age difference. Besides, being a boy, he had totally different interests from Kirstin. She was always busy with her own activities, happy with what she was doing, and never really alone because she had her group. It did cause her problems at school, when she would get so busy with her imaginary friends that she forgot to pay attention. More than once her teachers sent reports about Kirstin doing her own thing instead of what she was supposed to be doing. Eventually, she would do her work but in her own good time. One report read, “Kirstin is eager to please for most of her work. Sometimes she still continues to use her time for her ‘club’ activities. I insist she do her work, she gets mad and then does what I ask and usually does it well.”

Kirstin was approaching her twelfth birthday, and it seemed like a good idea for her to stop having imaginary friends. She would be going to middle school, and the kids might make fun of her. Besides, she needed to face reality. After a serious discussion about the group, Kirstin agreed that by her twelfth birthday, they would be gone.  And it seemed that she was true to her word.

It was a few months after Kirstin turned twelve that we were shopping in a fabric store. Kirstin was looking at the racks of fabric and talking incessantly to someone who wasn’t really there. I reminded her that she promised her group would go away.

“They did,” she told me, “but they’re here shopping with their mom.”

Today in private places like the bathroom, Kirstin can he overheard talking to someone, and I’ve watched her at work, whispering under her breath. She claims to have no memory of her imaginary friends, but I guess we’ll never know.

Kirstin’s side of the story:  I remember my imaginary friends a little, but I remember my real friends a lot more. At times I do talk to myself like other people do.

From This Little Light of Mine, a woman with Down syndrome shines brightly in the world, Chapter 4 “Living with Bratinella.” This book is available at amazon

Vacation on the Rocks–Part 2


After our rejuvenating soak in the mineral hot springs, we headed north on Interstate 25 toward Socorro.


Just before arriving there, we stopped at the Bosque del Apache IMG_0703National  Wildlife Refuge. Driving along the loop roadway lined with Cottonwoods and willows arrayed in their fall splendor, we IMG_0702stopped frequently to view water fowl of various types. We observed geese, swans, and pelicans, as well as several varieties of ducks. Walking out on the bridge over the marsh, we were fortunate to spot cranes, herons, grebes, egrets and ibis.

The next day, we said goodbye to Socorro and started out on a road that had few travelers. We were headed for a place that by design was in the middle of nowhere–the VeryIMG_0720 Large Array. It is a collection of twenty-seven gigantic dishes that span twenty-two miles to pick up radio waves. Because radio waves are so long, it requires that great distance to receive the entire wave. By using radio waves, scientists are able to observe stars and planets in the IMG_0722making, as well as black holes not visible to us in any other way.  To show how very large these dishes are, I asked my husband Craig to stand next to one. See if you can find him in the picture.

On our way back to Silver City, we drove through the Gila Wilderness. It was the first designated wilderness area in the United States, proposed by Aldo Leopold in 1924. It seemed appropriate to be there as this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act which preserves the more than 100 million acres of federal public lands.

Our final destination brought us back to Arizona. On our way to  the Chiricahua National Monument, we saw signs for Fort Bowie. Figuring, we might as well see it all, we followed the signs to a hiking trail that was a mile and a half long. At the end of the trail was Fort Bowie. Not wanting to spend the time hiking, we asked the ranger for driving directions. We able to take a dirt road that brought us to the site. IMG_0751Most of the fort had fallen into ruins, but enough remained to spark the imagination. In its prime, Fort Bowie was the launching point for campaigns against the Chiricahua Apache, led by Chocise, and later by Geronimo.

Continuing on with our original plan to visit Chiricahua National Monument, we discovered there is a dirt road that joins the two parks.  Chiricahua National Monument is what is known as a sky IMG_0769island–that is an isolated mountain range that rises up above the grassland sea that surrounds it. On roads originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, the park provides a beautiful drive to the top, passing through forests of cypress, pine and fir. At the top, we were able to view what the Chiricahua call “standing up rocks.” We took a trail to a rock grotto for more great views.  ToIMG_0785 the west, we could see the rugged Dragoon Mountains where Cochise had his stronghold.  The mountains are named after the 3rd US Calvary who were called Dragoons. It was a regiment of infantryman who used a heavy carbine known as a dragon, a kind of short musket,  instead of the usual sabre and revolver.  Cochise died on a reservation, but his body was buried in the Dragoon Mountains. His men rode their horses over the spot until it was no longer visible. No one living knows where Cochise was buried.

Tired, but happy, we returned home, thankful to all those who helped preserve the geologic and historic wonders we had been so fortunate to enjoy.


Vacation on the Rocks–Part I

IMG_0652Rocks were definitely the predominate feature on a trip we took recently through southern Arizona and New Mexico. We began our journey at Kartchner Caverns, southeast of Tucson, Arizona. We had been to the caverns before, on tours of the Throne Room which features the world’s longest soda straw and Kubla Khan, a fifty-eight foot column.  This time we were able to tour the Big Room which had only been open for a week. The Big Room is closed from mid-April to mid-October because it serves as a maternity ward for over a thousand female bats. It was a spectacular tour that included columns and ribbons called bacon as well as rare formations called moonmilk. What makes Kartchner Caverns distinctive from other caverns is that it is alive. Every effort is taken to maintain the proper humidity and conditions in the cavern. Watching water drip from the soda straws onto forming stalagmites, is like watching history in the making.

After leaving Arizona, we drove to Deming, New Mexico and then IMG_0649on to City of Rocks state park. It only takes a little imagination to picture Fred and Wilma coming out of one of the natural rock structures. This rock city is in the middle of a huge grassland. It appears as though some giant grew tired of carrying rocks in his pocket and dropped them on the ground. The park is a campground and some of the campsites are among the huge rocks. I had mixed feelings about that as I attempted to take pictures and avoid the huge motor homes.

After spending the night in Silver City, we left for Gila Cliff Dwellings. To get there required a journey of forty-five miles that would take an estimated two hours. The drive was along a road called the Trail of the Mountain Spirits. The two hours went by quickly as we were treated to forests of ponderosa pines splattered with the red and yellow leaves of the changing deciduous trees. Part of our drive took us up among the clouds.

When we finally reached the cliff dwellings we were greeted by forest ranger volunteers who directed us up the path along a small creek. IMG_0666 Reaching the top, the trail led us to another ranger who escorted us into the cliff dwellings. There we were able to explore the many rooms and enjoy the views. The ancient residents were Puebloan people archeologists call the Mogollon. They grew crops of beans and squash in the Gila River valley. The cliff dwellings were built between 1276 and 1287, using rock, mortar and timber.

IMG_0671The cliff dwellings consist of about 40 rooms inside five natural caves. Why the ancient people left this site is unknown. But by 1300, they abandoned their homes during a time of migration.  IMG_0682

We left the Gila Cliff Dwellings intending to follow Geronimo’s trail. This proved to be impossible because the road was closed due to damage from flooding. Forced to return to Deming and travel to Hatch, famous for their chilies, we reached our destination of Truth or Consequences. Originally named Hotsprings, New Mexico, the town changed its name in 1950, when Ralph Edwards, host of the radio quiz show, Truth or Consequences, promised to broadcast the show from any town in America willing to change its name. Hotsprings won the honor and the broadcast was held in May as part of a celebration they called “Fiesta.”

In Truth or Consequences, we stayed in a motel that offered a hotsprings bath. With water that comes out of the ground at 112.5 degrees and contains 37 minerals, we were able to soak away our travel fatigue and prepare for the rest of our journey.

Living in Bluesky



“The Bluesky Chamber of Commerce brochure boasts 273 sunny days each year. Nestled in the central mountains of Arizona, Bluesky has the ideal climate. Residents enjoy temperatures ten to twenty degrees cooler than the desert cities and four picture-perfect seasons. Even on rainy days, the clouds are not able to hold on for long but are soon pushed out of sight by the bluest blue sky imaginable. Yes, there are snowy days in the winter, but by three in the afternoon, the snow seems to have vaporized into thin air, without even a trace of mud to indicate the ground had once been covered with a powdery blanket of white.” (From Seven is a Perfect Number)

It may seem that Bluesky is too good to be true, but actually that is a fairly accurate description of the climate here in Chino Valley, Arizona.  When people who have never been here think of Arizona, they often picture a vast desert with saguaro cactus and rattle snakes. In fact our state has much more than that to offer. Here in the central mountains, we have tall ponderosa pines, grasslands, and chaparral.

Bluesky is actually based on Prescott Valley, Arizona of the 1980s. When we moved there in 1983, it was a very small town with just a few thousand residents. Nearly everyone lived on a dirt road and our mail was general delivery.  My son, who was twelve at the time, was in heaven. He roamed far and wide, discovering Lynx Creek and an old house that he called “the castle.”

Most travelers hurried through Prescott Valley on their way to Prescott. One landmark they would have seen was a boat house, a strange sight on the prairie.  A popular place was the Jack Ass Bar. Prescott Valley was originally named “Jack Ass Acres,” because of the wild burros that roamed there at one time. When we moved to Prescott Valley, pronghorn antelope shared the grasses in the middle of town with the Fain’s cattle.

Bluesky is a more developed version of Prescott Valley. The streets are paved and there are sidewalks. The pond that was at the end of our street became Holiday Lake in the Handy Helper books. Michael, my son, spent much of his time at that pond, collecting specimens and bringing them home. His sister’s splash pool was filled with dirty water and held his collection.

While the Handy Helpers could live in any town in America, I’m glad they live in Bluesky. The people there look out for one another. The Handy Helpers are welcomed and encouraged to pitch in and do their part.

I named the town Bluesky in honor of the splendid backdrop God paints for us every day here in the central highlands. But there is more. I like to think of blue sky as a metaphor for second chances. It reminds me of a slate being wiped clean so that we can start over. In A Rocky Start, Amber tells Spike, “. . . forgiveness is a gift that is freely given, not because we deserve it. But to accept forgiveness,  we have to forgive ourselves first.” That’s what blue sky means to me. We all make mistakes and come up short, but we have to forgive ourselves and start over.

The Handy Helper series is available on   amazon.

An “aha moment”


Scan_20141006I’ve heard Dr. Phil talk about an “aha moment,” one of those times in a person’s life that will always be remembered, because it was at that very moment something life-altering occurred. I had one of those moments in 1979. Kirstin was attending the regular preschool, and her teacher and I were having trouble communicating about her progress.  Flo suggested that we keep a notebook at the preschool. She would write in it each day, and so would I.

Everyday, I wrote about Kirstin’s accomplishments. “Today Kirstin asked a question. Kirstin helped make her bed. Now Kirstin can put on her shoes.”

As I have said, Kirstin’s attendance in the regular preschool pointed out many areas where she fell behind. Every day Flo would write about something Kirstin had trouble with. “Today, Kirstin wouldn’t participate with the other children. Kirstin had trouble using scissors. It is hard for Kirstin to color inside the lines.”

Every day, I read Flo’s comments and felt more and more frustrated. One day after reading all the things that Kirstin couldn’t do that day, I wrote, “Isn’t there anything Kirstin can do?” That was my aha moment. It was at the moment I decided to become a special education teacher. I would focus on what students were able to do and use that to build upon. That way we would focus on the positive not the negative. If you can do one thing, I surmised, you can learn more, and there’s no way to tell how far that can take us. That has stayed my teaching philosophy for twenty-nine years.

It was during my course work in special education I had another experience that contributed to what would later become my teaching philosophy. One of my professors had worked at the Coolidge facility and related this story to us. He was looking in on some of the residents, and while he was there he told a joke to the nurses. They didn’t get the joke, but a woman with cerebral palsy laughed. Her cerebral palsy was so severe that she could not move her arms or legs, nor could she speak. Confined to a bed or wheelchair, she required constant care as if she were a baby.

The fact that she laughed intrigued my professor, so he decided to try a little experiment. Arranging the room so she could not see him, he told another joke. Again she laughed. This was repeated, and in every instance, she laughed at the appropriate time. Certain that her brain activity was much more than anyone knew (people with cerebral palsy can have average intelligence and above), he decided to develop a program so that she would be able to communicate and learn.

Before he could put his plan into effect, the family of the woman took her home for Christmas. While she was there, she developed pneumonia and died. It struck me as so tragic that, for her entire life, she had been unable to express to others the extent of her understanding of what was going on around her. And now that someone had discovered the truth about her, it was too late. That story has stayed with me, and it is the reason why I never give up on a single student. How do I know if the next thing I try will be the answer?

From This Little Light of Mine, a woman with Down syndrome shines brightly in the world. Available at amazon


The Joy of Reading

Scan_20141009I can still remember the smell of the bookmobile that came to our neighborhood every two weeks when I was growing up. Those well-worn hard cover books have a smell that is distinct from paperbacks–kind of like a pungent cheese. Throughout my teen years, I walked to the corner where the bookmobile would be, my brother and sister in tow. Urging them to quicken their steps, I was eager to get there to find out what new books were waiting within.

Once inside, I would go immediately to the S section and look for Steinbeck, my favorite author at the time. Through his writings, I left my middle class neighborhood and traveled to places like Cannery Row and Tobacco Road. I cheered for the downtrodden, who were being exploited by the unscrupulous. Not really expecting a happy ending, I was always dissatisfied with the outcome.

It was sort of a fluke that I started reading Steinbeck in the first place. I was in advanced junior English when we were assigned to read either Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe, or a Steinbeck novel. (I don’t remember which one.) As there was some doubt as to whether I belonged in advanced English, I was strongly urged to read The Robe. (I had a solid B in that class, but as my counselor reminded me regularly I was really a C student in spite of the A’s and B’s I was earning. But that’s another story.) As I was easily intimidated and in awe of teachers I did as she suggested. But I continued to be intrigued by the idea of reading Steinbeck. So I checked out a book and was instantly hooked.

As a young reader I think I did a fair job of devouring everything in my school library. I loved Doctor Dolittle and hoped secretly that I would some day meet up with a pushmi-pullu. I read all the Beverly Cleary novels and spent hours with the March girls in Little Women. I read Little House on the Prairie and Ann of Green Gables. I loved going to places and times I could never really visit and meeting people I could never really know.

For a while, every summer, I would read an Alexander Dumas novel. When I finished The Three Musketeers, I said, “Where is it?” I plowed back through the pages, looking for it. Somehow I had missed the words, “One for all and all for one.” I always intended to read it again and pay better attention.  When I read The Man in the Iron Mask, I was surprised that Philippe was placed back in the mask and returned to the island. Apparently no movie producers could live with the ending as Dumas penned it. In every movie I’ve seen, it was always Louis who ended up in the mask. My favorite Dumas novel was The Count of Monte Cristo–definitely on my re-read list.

I still recall my sadness when I finished the last page of the last Jane Austen novel, knowing there would be no more. The longest book I’ve ever read is Anna Karenina. I would love to read it again, but I have so many more books I haven’t read, that I doubt I’ll have time. (Actually Moby Dick is longer, but I don’t want to read it again. I’ve been looking at lists of 100 must-read books to see what I’ve missed. I’ve already read many of them. I hope I have time to read the rest.

Meet Betty Jenkins

IMG_0426The first senior you will meet in A Rocky Start is Betty Jenkins and you meet her as Amber does on the second page. She is having trouble retrieving her newspaper from the bushes and asks Amber for help. That’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Betty is a retired mail carrier who moved from Kansas to Bluesky with her husband Paul.  When Paul passed away, Betty made the decision to remain in Bluesky. She has three sons. Calvin is a stockbroker in Oakland, California and has three boys. Sam is in the air force, stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Robert, who has two girls and a boy, is a chef in San Francisco.

Amber and Betty quickly develop a strong bond, due partly to their mutual love of art. Betty has a small studio behind her house where she paints landscapes. She sells a few of her paintings, but she gives many of them away. Amber is also drawn to Betty because Betty accepts and supports Amber as she is. While Amber’s family is loving and supportive, they can sometimes be a little overbearing. Betty is more likely to help Amber find her own way through situations.

There are two things Betty is famous for in Bluesky. First is her special chocolate chip cookies. She has a secret ingredient that she never tells to anyone–well, maybe just one person. The other thing Betty is famous for is shuffleboard. She invites Amber to her shuffleboard match at the senior center. Amber brings her friends along to cheer for Betty. Not only do they learn about shuffleboard, but they also discover the opportunity to become junior volunteers.

Betty is the best example of “love your neighbor.” When Doris Duncan hurts her back, Betty is right there to lend a hand. In this way, she is a role model to the Handy Helpers. Mary Snyder’s failed attempts at planting a garden lead her to enlist the help of Betty’s green thumb. Betty is there, hoe in hand, to lead the Snyders toward a bountiful garden.

It is Betty’s sense of humor that draws others–including the Handy Helpers–to her. She has a talent for lightening up any situation. When Amber has a mishap with her spinach salad, Betty tells a funny story on herself to make Amber feel better. Betty is the kind of friend and neighbor everyone would wish to have.

A Rocky Start and all the Handy Helper books are available at amazon


Written by Rosemary Heddens