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Inspiration: From unlikely heroes in our midst

From unlikely heroes in our midst.

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Last weekend I was skinny dipping in a gorgeous alpine lake and this weekend I awoke to gigantic snowflakes blanketing town. It's that charming schizophrenia that makes Bend such a special place to live. Many of us moved here for the sun and the snow and the recreational opportunities they afford. But this week, especially, I was reminded why I stay. It's the people. That probably sounds trite, but the next time you're seeking inspiration, just look next to you.

CALL IT "UP" SYNDROME

I met Karen Gaffney at a luncheon last week. Karen lives in Portland, but she was in Bend to connect with friends and share her story. Karen Gaffney, all 4 feet 10 inches and 95 pounds of her, has swum the English Channel. Fewer people have swum the 21 miles of 60-degree water from England to France than have climbed Mount Everest. By the way, English Channel etiquette calls for no wetsuits. Those crazy Brits! Karen accomplished the feat in 2001 on a relay team of 14 Oregonians, which included Bendites Mike Tennant, Laura Schob, Tom Landis and Sara Quan. They completed the swim in 14 hours and 11 minutes.

In September 2007, she completed a solo swim across the width of Lake Tahoe. In slightly more than six hours, she swam nine miles from Deadman Point on the Nevada side to Homewood in California, in 59-degree water. At least this time, she was able to wear a wetsuit. Swimming vast distances in cold, open water is not everybody's idea of a good time. But Karen does it for an extra reason.

"I was born with something extra," she says. "That something extra was a little more genetic material." Specifically, Karen was born with an extra copy of chromosome 21, which is the cause of Down Syndrome, a disorder characterized by physical and mental developmental disabilities.

"I walk with a limp. I have not been able to run since I was 4 years old. So I swim instead. My Dad taught me to swim before I could walk," she says.

Karen's father, Jim Gaffney, introduced his nine-month-old daughter to the pool as a means of rehabilitation for her badly dislocated hips after numerous surgeries. Karen attended high school at St. Mary's Academy in Portland and lettered on the swim team.

"I can tell you, I swim faster than I walk," she says.

Karen swims to show the world what people with Down Syndrome are capable of. Her Tahoe crossing raised money for the National Down Syndrome Congress. She is the president of the Karen Gaffney Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting people with Down Syndrome fully included into society (www.karengaffneyfoundation.com).

Karen is also an amazing public speaker. When she finished speaking at the luncheon, I don't think there was an un-awed person in the room. One attendee stood up and said it for the rest us: "I think they should call it "Up" Syndrome."

ALOHA IN ACTION

I met Al Paterson beside the Deschutes River a little over a year ago. He had white hair and a goatee, a charming South African accent, a glimmer in his eye and a stand-up paddle board. We immediately started talking about waves.

Al moved to Bend about two years ago from Hanalei, Kaui where he surfed the big north shore waves for decades. An intrepid globe traveler, Al has skydived on Oahu, rafted down the wild Zambezi River, bungee jumped off the Victoria Falls Bridge, ridden on horseback across the plains of the Masai Mara, the Serengeti and the Okavango Delta and successfully climbed Kilimanjaro twice. He also pioneered snowboarding in Aspen.

But the thing that actually impressed me about Al is that he is Aloha in action. After talking about waves, Al shared an idea he had with me.

"Bend is a wonderful community going through tough times. I want to do something to lift the spirits of the people in Bend, to inspire people and to get them to pass it on."

Last Saturday night, Al's idea came alive at the Tower Theatre as " A Night To Remember: A Celebration of the Human Spirit." It was an evening filled with 10 inspirational stories about heroes in our midst, right here in Bend, and accompanied by moving music from Bill Keale, the Master Singers and the Youth Choir of Central Oregon. The evening was free - no ticket charge, no sponsors, not even a request for a charitable donation.

It was Al Paterson's gift to Bend and all he asked is for us to "pay it forward."

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