Karen Gaffney's trajectory has gone from "special needs" to athlete to philanthropist.
Gaffney has accomplished a number of firsts in her 32 years. The first Down syndrome graduate of St. Mary's Academy, she was the first swimmer with Down syndrome to be part of a team to swim the English Channel and swam nine miles across frigid Lake Tahoe to raise money for the National Down Syndrome Congress. She has carried the Olympic torch.
But what many people appreciate most about Gaffney is how she now devotes her life to the good of others. Gaffney volunteers at Providence Center for Medically Fragile Children and Head Start. The Portland-based foundation she leads works to increase access to athletics and jobs for people with developmental disabilities.
She's an inspirational speaker.
"What I admire about Karen is happening now in her life — she is speaking out for people with disabilities and advocating for children with disbilities," says Dorothy Coughlin, director of the Archdiocese of Portland's Office for People with Disabilities. "She has come to believe in herself as a person and her gifts and she wants other children to have that."
Swimming, Coughlin explains, gave Gaffney "a sense of endurance and determination and a belief in the power of each person." Her true greatness "is not her accomplishments, but who she is as a person."
A year ago, Gaffney led a team that swam long distance in the Columbia River to fund swim therapy at Providence, home to many children with profound disabilities.
Now, she's organizing a swim marathon to help pay for a therapy pool at the center. Earlier this month, Gaffney flew to the east coast to swim across Lake Champlain for a Down syndrome Foundation.
"Karen helps to open the doors for people to say, 'Someone with Down Syndrome could do this,'" says her mother, Barbara Gaffney.
If not for swimming, Gaffney might well be in a wheelchair because of leg problems. When she swims, she can use only one leg, so depends on powerful shoulders and arms.
Gaffney got in the water as an infant and began learning to swim at nine months. She was on a Special Olympics swim team by age six. Meanwhile, her parents began early special education for her, focusing on literacy. She transferred into St. Pius X School, where teachers worked with her strengths.
Though some faculty and staff were skeptical, Gaffney entered St. Mary's Academy. Teachers devised plans for her — like incorporating videos. She was thrilled to be on the school swim team. She never missed practice and managed to be third, fourth or fifth in most races, rarely last. She earned her diploma and developed an especially deep love of Shakespeare.
"She is certainly determined," says Diana Gordon, who taught biology during the 1990s. "Failure was not in her vocabulary." Gordon is proud that Gaffney has become what St. Mary's wants of all its students — a leader who serves others.
"The thing that impressed me about Karen was her dedication," says Cynthia Heller, who has taught math at St. Mary's for 23 years. "She always did her homework and was prepared for class."
Heller also recalls the girl's positive attitude.
"She had her challenges like all students do," Heller says. "She didn't let it defeat her. She persevered. I think that endurance helped her in her later endeavors."
After graduating from St. Mary's in 1997, Gaffney earned a degree from Portland Community College and a teacher's aide certificate, holding a 3.41 grade-point average.