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Event celebrates 'miracle' nature of people with Down syndrome

When Kareena Martinez of Newman was pregnant with Sammy, now

5 months old, a doctor offered to test the baby growing inside. In case he was, well, different. He might even, you know, have Down syndrome.

That was just the right thing to say -- to ensure that she would never let that long needle near her belly.

"I said, 'If he's anything like Uncle Mikey, I want him,' " she recalled saying. She was among the many Mike Martinez fans at Saturday's 13th annual Buddy Walk at Calvary Temple Worship Center, where people with Down syndrome gathered with a couple of hundred supporters to celebrate meaningful life and love.

Martinez of Patterson took little Sammy, who doesn't have Down syndrome, in his arms after the walk as the crowd settled in for food, entertainment and activities. "I love kids," he said. "And people."

Martinez was born 41 years ago with 47 chromosomes instead of 46. People with Down syndrome have mental and sometimes physical disabilities of varying degrees.

His mother, Debbie Archuleta, said hospital personnel advised her not to hold her baby for the first three weeks of his life, to prevent bonding. If the two bonded, that could make it difficult for her to submit forms committing Mike to an institution, papers she refused to sign.

"They told me he would be an embarrassment and a hindrance to us his whole life," Archuleta remembered. "Mike has been just the opposite -- an inspiration and an asset."

He won a drawing contest at 12. He delivered a special education valedictorian speech when he graduated from a San Jose high school in 1989. He held down food service jobs for many years before moving to Patterson with family members, 20 of whom joined the

Buddy Walk on Saturday in full support. Most wore this year's special T-shirt with a red, white and blue logo designed by Martinez, with lettering asking, "Would you walk with me?"

The Modesto walk was established in 1996, a year after the National Down Syndrome Society staged 17 walks to promote awareness and acceptance of people with Down syndrome. Buddy Walks across the United States have grown since to 275, engaging nearly 2 million people and raising more than $6.5 million for local services.

The Central California Down Syndrome Foundation, for example, runs activities and a support group for 130 families. New president Kathleen Du Bose is developing a program showing expectant mothers the blessings they can look forward to when they welcome a Down syndrome baby into their homes.

"We want to spread the word that our babies are miracles who can thrive and learn and do things as any other child," said Du Bose, whose Down syndrome son, Zeke, is 9. "They're angels. Any of our parents can testify to that."

The experience of Sarah Palin, who gave birth to a Down syndrome boy just five months before she became the Republican U.S. vice presidential candidate, helps provide exposure, Du Bose said.

Down syndrome affects people of every race and economic level, increasing in incidence with the age of the mother. Better health care has boosted life expectancy from 25 years in 1983 to 56 today. More than 350,000 people with Down syndrome live in the United States.

Martinez, who lives with his mother, visits the library just about every day. He cooks, cleans, irons and writes country music. For years, he has sent suggested plays to the San Francisco 49ers coaching staff. And he never misses a Power Rangers episode.

"You think life is so tough, then you look at Mike," said his sister-in-law, Tina Archuleta of Ceres. "He always has a smile on his face. Then you say, 'It's not that bad.' "

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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