The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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Monday, August 28, 2000
By KELLY ADAMS, Columbian staff writer

PORTLAND -- For some people, it's a challenge just getting dressed by noon on Sunday. Then there's Karen Gaffney.

As Sunday morning's clouds gave way to afternoon sunshine, she was climbing out of the chilly waters of the Columbia River having finished a three-mile swim.

Gaffney and 10 members of her swimming relay team dove into the water about 11 a.m. on Marine Drive and reached Hayden Island by noon. The team is in training to cross the English Channel next summer to promote including the developmentally disabled in the workplace, in school and in athletics.

Gaffney, 22, was born with Down syndrome. Her father taught her to swim when she was 9 months old. Since then, she hasn't been far from the water.

She competed on the swim team at St. Mary's Academy, lettering in the sport.

Gaffney is finishing work on an associate's degree at Portland Community College, between speaking engagements all over the country. Through her organization, the Karen Gaffney Foundation, she addresses groups nationwide about the developmentally disabled. None of her teammates are developmentally disabled, and that's exactly the point, her friend and former teacher Jed Shay said.

"She's just like everybody else."

As Barb Gaffney stood on the beach watching her daughter dive into the river Sunday, she said her family decided early on to encourage Karen to go as far as she could with her life.

"She would set her own limitations," Barb said.

Staying active has helped. Those with Down syndrome often have less muscle mass. Karen has struggled with a hip problem that prevented her from weight-bearing exercise such as lifting and running.

"She swam every day," Barb said of Karen's high school years. "It helped her stay alert in school."

Instead of accepting the belief that Karen could only reach a certain level academically, the family kept working to find what would help her learn.

"Young people with developmental disabilities really benefit from early intervention," Barb said. "They benefit from people having high expectations."

While the team made its way across the water, friends and family headed by car to Jantzen Beach, where they watched expectantly for the first signs of the support boats. Karen's father, Jim, and brother, Brian, rode personal watercraft alongside the swimmers as they made their way west.

"Karen's just on her way down to Astoria," Shay joked as he stood on the dock waiting for her to arrive. The two met at Portland Community College when Karen enrolled in one of his acting classes. Together they produce instructional videos about developmental disabilities.

While he started out as her teacher, Shay said he's learned a lot from Karen about persistence and achievement.

"She just does it," he said of her ability to go after what she wants. "She's made me want to be a better person."

As Karen climbed out of the water, Barb was there to wrap a towel around her shivering daughter. As she stood dripping on the dock, Karen shared her secret of success.

"I just don't let anything stand in my way."

Helping others is another key, Karen said. Her advice to those struggling with limitations: "Try as hard as you can to make a difference in people's lives, and then do the same for you."


Who: Karen Gaffney, 22, with Down syndrome leading a relay team scheduled to swim the English Channel next year

What: Karen Gaffney Foundation promotes the inclusion of those with developmental disabilities: www. karengaffney or Karen Gaffney Foundation, 815 N.W. 13th Ave., Suite C, Portland, OR 97209

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