On Wednesday, December 16, 2020, Karen Ann Brandvold passed away at the age of fifty-seven.
Karen was born June 3, 1963, in Great Falls, Montana, to John and Evelyn (Hanson) Brandvold. Karen spent most of her childhood in Choteau, Montana, where she lived with her family. Diagnosed at an early age with Down Syndrome, Karen nonetheless spent her lifetime transforming disabilities into special abilities.
Karen was born at the right time to take advantage of newly-developing programs for children with disabilities, including Special Education and Special Olympics. She was about seven when the local school began to offer a Special Education class. Karen was among the first students to enroll in that program. She learned to read and write at an unexpectedly high level for a child with Down Syndrome. Her remarkable memory for dates enabled her to prepare birthday cards for friends and family—and deliver them on the correct day.
The school’s physical education classes helped Karen develop coordination and skills; the Special Olympics program gave her a chance to showcase those skills with classmates and new friends. She demonstrated an aptitude for gymnastics, including floor exercise and balance beam. She qualified for the 1975 International Special Olympics and came home from that event with two silver medals.
Karen was an adult when she and her parents moved back to Great Falls. She benefitted from Easter Seals-Goodwill programs where her specific goals included the development of job skills and the promotion of independence. She learned to travel on the city bus, transferring correctly on the routes between home and work. She developed janitorial skills and served for several years in a motel enclave where she proudly wore a professional uniform, complete with black tie, white shirt and black slacks. Meanwhile, Karen’s burgeoning office skills included the preparation of materials for mailing: collating, tabbing tri-folds, putting papers into envelopes and placing an address label on each envelope. And then there were the fun activities—like doing arts and crafts projects at Paris Gibson Square.
In 2003, Karen received an Achieving Independence Award for accomplishing goals leading to greater independence. The award was presented during the annual Easter Seals-Goodwill Montana Banquet at the airport in Great Falls. When Karen arrived at the event, she was given a corsage and a program with her name on one of the pages. She promptly disappeared. The family located her—going from table to table, meeting new people and offering to autograph their programs.
In 2005, Karen spoke at the National School Boards Association Annual Conference in San Diego. She opened with a joke, then described the kinds of work she is able to do. There were tears in the audience that day as Karen inspired participants to renewed advocacy for quality education for each child.
One of Karen’s long-term goals was to live in her own apartment. In 2016, she moved into Park Plaza where she could live in a unit right next to her sister’s place. Karen rode the bus to Easter Seals, socialized with her new friends, shared jokes, helped decorate the big Christmas tree, and she sang and danced to her heart’s content.
On December 3, 2019, Karen fell. She broke her occipital bone, got a subdural hematoma, and lost her hearing. With the help of family members and devoted caregivers, she was able to stay in her home, the place she loved, until her peaceful passing.
Karen was preceded in death by her parents and by brothers-in-law Arthur Schmidt, Robert Morgan, Ray Smith, Greg Phillips and David Traner.
Karen was part of a loving family that supported and encouraged her throughout her lifetime. She is survived by sisters Joan Schmidt (children Jacob Schmidt and Sara Schmidt), Joyce Morgan (children Lindsay Morgan, Holly Morgan-Fitterer, Jillian Pritchard and Matthew Morgan), Carol Phillips (children Mark Smith, Jance Phillips and Jeremy Phillips), Nancy Traner (son Michael) and brother Larry Brandvold (wife Linda).
Karen has been buried alongside her parents in the St. Paul Lutheran Church Cemetery near Fairfield. A memorial service will be held during the summer of 2021 in Great Falls, Montana.
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