The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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Life Lessons: Karen Gaffney Letting Nothing Stand In Her Way

PCC Magazine
By Gary Allen

When looking back on their lives, many successful people point to a teacher, maybe in high school or college, that inspired them to work harder and strive from something seemingly beyond their grasp.

If that's the case, then Karen Gaffney is sure to inspire many of her young charges when she becomes a teacher's aide.

Karen was born with Down Syndrome. It's unlikely the diminutive (she weighs 95 pounds and stands 4-foot 10-inches tall), 23-year-old student at Portland Community College will intimidate anyone with her physical presence. But her accomplishments? Well, that's another matter.

"When I was born, the doctors told my parents that I would not be able to have a life of my own," Karen said.

Karen and her family were determined that she would be different, that she would be included in society and that if she put her mind to it she could accomplish anything. She is a few classes short of earning a degree from PCC and she is determined to ply the knowledge she gathered at PCC, and through life experience, in the working world.

"I really enjoy going to PCC," Karen said. "There has been great acceptance of my experiences. " I work with a counselor, Roger Frank, to pick the right classes. I am going to get my associate's of science degree and my teacher's aide certificate. I have been attending classes for three years at PCC. I have had classes on the three campuses: Sylvania, Rock Creek and Cascade."

Karen is currently taking two classes at PCC - early childhood education and English literature/ drama.

Barbara Gaffney, Karen's mother, said the school carried on the educational process Karen began at home and through her early years in the education system. "Karen needed (and still does) a great deal of reinforcement of concepts for learning and she gets that at PCC," she said. " Hearing concepts from different viewpoints using multiple media and other approaches all helped Karen get the basics."

In addition to her education, she prepared herself for life with another endeavor-- competitive swimming.

Karen attended high school at St. Mary's Academy in Portland and lettered on the swim team. But it was many years earlier that Karen was first exposed to swimming and it wasn't the sporting aspect that lured her to the pool. Karen's father, Jim Gaffney, introduced his 9-month-old daughter to the pool as a means of rehabilitation for her badly dislocated hips after numerous surgeries, a malady common to those with Down Syndrome.

"Each time, I would have to recover in a full body cast," she said. "Each time I would have to learn to walk all over again. I would start in the pool and gradually make my way to solid ground."

What started out as therapy has blossomed into a nearly-daily regimen for Karen. She swims more than two miles a day, four to five times a week at the Multnomah Athletic Club in downtown Portland. She also lifts weights several times a week.

"Swimming helps me physically by strengthening my muscles, which helps with my dislocated hips," she said. "Swimming helps me mentally by increasing my concentration skills and helps me to stay awake in my classes."

Her training regimen is preparing Karen to undertake something far beyond what people would expect from someone with Down Syndrome. In summer 2001, Team Gaffney, two six-person squads led by Karen, will attempt a 21-mile relay swim across the English Channel.

" Swimming the English Channel has been a dream that my Dad and I both have for a long time," she said.

In addition to her daily exercise routine, Karen has been preparing for the Channel swim by joining teammates for a three-mile swim down the Columbia River. The aim of Team Gaffney is to spread her message that people with Down Syndrome can contribute to society.

"By swimming the Channel, I hope to bring awareness of what people like me can do," she said. " I want people to realize that with hard work, dedication and support for families and the community, that people like me can do what everyone else can do and more. I (also) want to raise money for my non- profit organization -- The Karen Gaffney Foundation. This money will go towards funding new videos."

Karen's foundation has produced a video, "Journey of a Lifetime... Beginning with the End in Mind," directed towards parents of children born with Down Syndrome.

Over the last several years, Karen has taken her message of inclusion on the road, speaking before organizations across the country. " By the end of this year I will have given more than 30 speeches she said. " I have spoken to the National ARC in Nashville. I also have spoken for the Down Syndrome Congress, Special Olympics, at schools and universities and (at the) Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.

"I do these speaking engagements because I am trying to carry my message to other families about what it is like to have Down syndrome. (We) can really make a difference in (our) lives with hard work and dedication."

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25 NW 23rd Place, STE 6
Portland, Oregon 97210-5120

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