When Caitlin Wells speaks of her younger sister Anna, who died in May 2017 at age 26, she does not speak of a person with developmental disabilities, or a person with Down syndrome.
Rather, she recalls her sister’s ebullience, her love of life, and how she brought people together.
“She was a total politician. She knew how to work a crowd,” Wells said. “We’d have these get-togethers, and she would go around and ask everyone about their day, and how they were doing, and how’s their family. She had a memory for people and could just lock in with just where you were at, and knew the right questions to ask to really engage you in conversation.”
“It was nuts. It was just like, innate.”
Anna also enjoyed music and dance, and to celebrate her life and love of music, Caitlin and her mom Marlyn Wells will present a dance party Saturday, Jan. 6, at Motorco Music Hall in Durham. The Anna Bonanza Roundup will have music from Skylar Gudasz, Blue Cactus and other musicians who were friends of Anna, Caitlin and other members of the Wells family.
She was a total politician. She knew how to work a crowd.”
Proceeds will benefit ATLAS Fit. ATLAS is an acronym for Adolescents Transitioning to Leadership and Success, a program at Duke that benefits teenagers and young adults with special healthcare needs. The Fit program is for adults 18 to 29 years old with developmental disabilities and a chronic illness. Marlyn Wells recently became a parent navigator for Duke Health, helping parents with children who have chronic illnesses. She also works with the ATLAS Fit program.
Anna died from heart arrythmia, said Wells. Her sister was born with a heart with only two chambers, which was surgically corrected. She also had hyperthyroidism. Heart and thyroid problems are among the health issues associated with Down syndrome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, about 6,000 babies in the United States are born with Down syndrome, according to the CDC. People with Down syndrome are born with an extra chromosome.
Some 400 people attended Anna’s funeral in Raleigh in June, said Marlyn Wells. They included members of her book club, her church, people who had attended Wake County Public Schools with her, speech pathologists and other health care workers, and many others, Marlyn Wells said.
Attendance at Anna’s funeral “was standing room only,” Caitlin Wells said. “There was a line down the block [at Five Points Center for Active Adults]. You couldn’t find parking. It was overflowing into the lobby.”
Caitlin and her mom wanted to host an event that reflected that sense of community and Anna’s connection to people. “We see the celebration as being critically important,” not just as a celebration of one life, but as “representative of what matters when we talk about community,” Marlyn Wells said.
Caitlin Wells is an actor and director. She formed the Delta Boys Theater Company, and has worked with Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and other companies. Gudasz was a member of Delta Boys, and through her Caitlin Wells became friendly with other musicians. Gudasz and Matt Peterson (who will also play at the dance party) also played at Anna’s funeral.
When she approached them and other musicians about playing for Anna Bonanza Roundup, they did not ask for money, even though Caitlin wanted to pay them. “Because they knew my sister, they didn’t care about the money in this instance, so that means a heck of a lot,” she said.
The “Bonanza” reference goes back to the days when Caitlin and Anna would watch classic TV shows and movies, including the “Bonanza” western series, Caitlin Wells said. Anna’s softball league in Cary gave players a theme song and a nickname, and her sister chose “Bonanza.”
When she and her mom were thinking about a name for the event, they chose Bonanza.
Her softball team “would play the ‘Bonanza’ theme every time she would go up to bat,” Caitlin Wells said. “And she was such a priss about it. She wouldn’t even go up to bat until they had started the song. So if they waited to start the song she would just stand there with her little batting helmet on that was always too big for her …. When she would walk up, she would prance up and make sure everyone was watching her....” Once she hit the ball, “she would do this kind of low-grade ‘Baywatch’ run around the bases, making sure everyone was watching her while the ‘Bonanza’ theme song was playing.”
Caitlin and her mom would like to make the dance party an annual event. To Caitlin, the most important thing about the Bonanza “is that it’s inclusive, and that it’s everybody coming together to have a dance party,” she said.
She recalled a dance party held to mark Anna’s 25th birthday, in which “different kinds of people in the room [were] having a blast together.” That spirit is “not the world we live in right now. Everybody gets separated out and segregated out, and there are not spaces for everybody to come together and enjoy each other’s company.
“And that, to me, is the most important part of this,” and “all the better that we get all of Anna’s favorite music and all of her friends are involved”
Go & Do
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 6. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., dance party begins at 8:30
WHERE: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham
ADMISSION: Suggested donation of $15, but no one will be turned away. Proceeds benefit ATLAS Fit of Duke.