When Karen Gaffney limped poolside at her first swimming practice as a fifth grader two decades ago, some of her teammates were puzzled. How could a girl who walked with such difficulty, and who had Down Syndrome, get by in such a demanding sport?
"Some of the kids were pretty skeptical when I signed up," Gaffney, now 31, told 800 supporters of the Catholic Youth Organization and Camp Howard. "But not CYO. They just let me swim."
The crowd was gathered Tuesday at Portland's convention center for a benefit for the sports and recreation arm of the local church. Gaffney gave the keynote at the CYO Champions of Faith dinner and was inducted into the CYO Hall of Fame.
What the other St. Pius X School students didn't know 20 years ago is that Gaffney had been swimming since she was a baby, learning to use one leg and powerful shoulders to move faster in water than she does on land. By the time she got to St. Mary's Academy, Gaffney was a team favorite, with other swimmers helping her climb onto the starting block.
As an adult, Gaffney has swum nine miles across Lake Tahoe, traversed Lake Champlain and was part of a team to cross the English Channel. But her most important swim, she says, was last year's plunge into the chilly Columbia River, which raised money for a therapy pool at a Providence center for children with severe disabilities. Gaffney, who gives talks and raises funds, has long worked to help children with disabilities exceed expectations. The crowd gave Gaffney two standing ovations.
The second annual dinner was an effort to raise $200,000 to support CYO and Camp Howard. Totals are still being tallied. Funds cover scholarships for athletes in need, sports gear and capital improvements at Camp Howard, like a heater for the swimming pool. Next up — a $500,000 cover for a sports area so kids can have fun even in the rain.
Sister Krista von Borstel, a Sister of St. Mary of Oregon and executive director of CYO/Camp Howard, is a major influence behind the programs, along with a staff she praises regularly. Sister Krista kept a low profile at the dinner until dinner chair Werner Nistler asked the crowd to recognize her. That led to a standing ovation.
"My passion is CYO and Camp Howard," she said during the evening.
Jesuit Father Paul Grubb, before he gave the invocation surrounded by CYO athletes, dangled the badges of honor he had received at Camp Howard in the 1980s.
"I have very fond memories of my faith formation at Camp Howard," said Father Grubb, who attended St. Pius and then Jesuit High, where he now teaches. "CYO is glue that binds the archdiocese together." It was through CYO basketball, he said, that he discovered other parishes in the city — even if it was mostly the gyms.
"CYO unites Portland and it unites us in the faith," he said.
Also inducted into the CYO Hall of Fame was Anna Maria Lopez, one of Oregon's most accomplished athletes. One of eight children and a graduate of Madeleine School, St. Mary's Academy and USC, she was a top basketball and volleyball player. She now serves as athletic director at St. Mary's Academy.
"It was you who gave me the opportunity to begin playing," she said, pointing out former coaches in the audience. CYO helped her see sport as joy, not battle.
Videos and slide shows played on large screens, showing potential donors scenes from sports and camp. In one video, a grandmother gives tearful thanks for the scholarship that allowed her granddaughter to work as a counselor in training at camp. In the "dream donor" category: a horse ranch near the camp is for sale for $500,000. In addition, CYO would like 30 acres somewhere near Portland for a sports complex.
Large challenge grants this year came from the B.P. Lester and Regina John Foundation and the Joseph E. Weston Foundation.
Nistler says that 97 percent of donations to CYO goes to programming, while only 3 percent covers administration and salaries.