Karen Gaffney – administrative assistant at the Center for Medically Fragile Children at Providence – has a long history of giving back, especially when it comes to bringing awareness for those with disabilities.
She’s the president of the Karen Gaffney Foundation, is involved with various Down syndrome support groups around the country, and in 2013 became the first person living with Down syndrome to receive an honorary doctorate, which was awarded by University of Portland.
Karen has a deep connection with the Center for Medically Fragile Children. A longtime volunteer, she spearheaded a 6-mile Columbia River swim in 2011 that raised $76,000 for the aquatic therapy program at the center. Her mother, Barb Gaffney, is currently a board member of Providence Children’s Health Foundation.
In recognition of her long commitment to Providence, Karen was named recipient of the 2005 Heart of Gold award by Providence Children’s Health Foundation.
In addition to her work at the Center for Medically Fragile Children, she continues to bring attention on how our world can create better opportunities for those who have disabilities. Karen has presented in front of schools, universities, businesses, Down syndrome support conferences, state legislatures, and in foreign countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, Ireland and more.
Most recently Karen swam her longest open swim – nine miles – in the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe to fundraise for the National Down Syndrome Congress.
See below for a Q&A with Karen.
Tell us about your swim in Lake Tahoe
It was a lot of fun, and I was so happy I could do it. I trained for the swim for five months in and out of the pool. To get used to swimming in a lake, I swam in Donner Lake in Northern California a few weeks beforehand. It’s about three miles long.
I had so much support during the fundraising swim. One of my uncles kayaked beside me the whole way; my dad was on a boat nearby with food and water for the swim; and my brother Brian was on a waverunner.
Earlier in my trip, I had the opportunity to speak at a local school to share what the swim meant for the National Down Syndrome Congress and how it was important to bring awareness for those with Down syndrome and disabilities.
Your TEDxPortland talk is inspiring. Why did you start speaking?
About 10 years ago I had decided to start public speaking. I wanted to be a voice for people with disabilities.
I’m so grateful to have had the opportunities to share my story. I’ve been able to make friends around the world, and encourage those with disabilities that you can do anything you put your mind to.
What do you do for Providence?
I first started as a volunteer at the Center for Medically Fragile Children, and now I work part-time as an administrative assistant. I’m able to provide help to our center and also have time set aside for public speaking events.
When I’m in the office, I do data entry and clerical work for the center, Providence Children’s Development Institute and Swindells Resource Center.
I also have the opportunity to work with a job coach a few hours a week to help with certain tasks. It’s really been a great support.
What do you like about Providence?
My team, who really are people of Providence. Caregivers have gone out of their way to make me feel included and welcomed on their team. They’ve been a great resource for me and always help when I have questions.
The promise of Providence means a lot to me, “Know me, care for me, ease my way.” I see that promise every day when I work at the Center for Medically Fragile Children. We treat every patient, parent and caregiver with that promise.
I wanted to be a voice for people with disabilities.”
Thank you, Karen, for all you do to advocate and care for children with special needs. Your service and commitment are unwaivering and we are so blessed to have you as a person of Providence.