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In Memory of Katie Dunn

She was waiting at the finish line and saw her approaching. Arms pumping, purple hair popping, purple skirt flying, Polar Plunge logo tatted on her ankle; Linda Peck Athens was running for something and towards something that meant as much or more to the person waiting at the end of the 5k as it did to Linda herself.

It was in memory of Katie Dunn.

Katie was a long-time athlete and advocate for Special Olympics Oregon (SOOR). In the world of inclusion at SOOR, there isn’t much room for favoritism, though if all are honest, there was something extra special about Katie.

Katie was the middle of Anne Dunn’s three daughters. Born with Down syndrome at a time when things were a little tougher for people with an intellectual disability, Katie persevered any obstacle put in her path, and, as her mom said, “had a wonderful life.”

An athlete by nature, Katie competed in nearly every sport Special Olympics Oregon offers and came in 6th in the world at the Special Olympics World skiing competition while representing the U.S.

Said Anne, “Katie was adored. She was truly self-sufficient. She paid all her own bills and was ‘queen of Tri-Met’; she could get around anywhere in town and helped classmates with their Tri-Met schedules. She worked multiple jobs from fast food to the library to her (career) at Community Pathways and was the first graduate in the Beaverton School District with Down syndrome, graduating from Sunset High School.”

Developing Alzheimer’s at the age of 48 sidelined Katie from the life she had built for herself. “She had to move to a group home for the past 3 years of her life,” said Anne, “she ended up dying of E.coli and dementia. In a way it was a blessing not having to go through the absolute awfulness of Alzheimer’s,” said Anne.

When she retired from Community Pathways, Katie’s fellow employees threw a huge party for her and started an award in her honor: The Smile Award.

One “hysterical” story Anne loves to tell is when Katie was on SOOR’s Athlete Leadership Council (ALC), who was having a weekend summit at Embassy Suites. Everyone showed up at Embassy Suites in Tigard, and no Katie.

“She had mistakenly gone to the one in downtown Portland,” Anne shared, “Joe Harvey (SOOR’s Senior Director of Program and Volunteer Services) went to get her, and she had already checked in….to the penthouse suite! She’d unpacked her clothes into the closet, and she was settling in. When Joe brought her to the right hotel, she claimed it was “not as good,” Anne said laughing, “she was so full of spunk. We miss her terribly.”

Britt Oase, CEO of SOOR, called Katie a friend. “When Britt started,” said Anne, “things were rough at SOOR. They were in trouble, then Covid hit, and things got worse. Britt was in her office on Macadam when Katie decided one day to drop in unannounced. Britt was in a meeting at the time, but the receptionist interrupted so Britt could take a meeting with Katie, telling Britt how important Katie was to SOOR. Now Britt has a cut out of Katie in her office!”

“What can I say about my daughter?” asked Anne, ““Katie was a fun and mischievous person. At her eulogy, her sisters started with “our sister was never still,” which brought the house down, because it was so true.”

“She was well known and beloved,” Anne continued. “She made friends with everyone; she served on the statewide Board of Directors for SOOR and called people like Ed Ray (past president of OSU) a friend. Katie was very organized, just like me. She would only wear seasonal things during the season.”

Katie was also a collector of Polar Plunge gear, with every year neatly tucked away in boxes. Somehow, her t-shirt from the year 2015 went missing, and “she was beside herself,” said Anne.

Then last summer, four 2015 Polar Plunge t-shirts dropped on Katie’s door by a thoughtful SOOR staff, who had them made for her especially. “Katie was so thrilled,” said Anne, “but she was a little confused that there were four. She only needed one, so she gave the others to her roommates.”

Katie was buried in that shirt when she passed last year.

“It was a beautiful service,” said Anne, “I had her for 50 years. She is with God now to take care of her. Her PHAME (a fine and performing arts academy serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities) has established a “Katie Dunn entry” at their new building. She was the most remarkable person, and I’m not just saying that as her mom.”

This year, the Polar Plunge Super Plungers, a group that plunges every hour for 24 straight hours, dedicated this year’s event to the memory of Katie Dunn, with wristbands for all, organized by athlete Ashley Herberholz.

Said Anne “the super plungers came up with this all on their own. I knew nothing about it until I saw the story on KOIN-TV.”

Linda didn’t super plunge, but she made a super big splash in her own way in Katie’s honor, contributing the highest individual donation, $4,100, to this year’s Polar Plunge fundraising campaign.

“It’s crazy I raised that much,” said Linda, “I got my ‘Walking Dead’ fan base involved. They all contributed, and I kept raising the stakes for myself. I said if I raise $2,500, I’ll get the Polar Plunge bear tattoo on my ankle, $3,000 was a fully purple outfit in honor of Katie’s favorite color, $3,500 to dye my hair purple. It just kept going!”

Former co-workers at Community Pathways, Linda had worked with Katie for nearly a decade before she retired. Community Pathways is a case management company that assists adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live empowered lives.

“Katie touched all of our lives somehow,” said Linda, “we were all sad when she passed. She was the life of the party at every company party we had.”

For the 2020 plunge, Linda interviewed Katie to tell people why Special Olympics Oregon is so important, helping to boost Linda’s Polar Plunge fundraising efforts that year. Katie would repost that video a lot through the years, and Linda is glad to have it now, for herself and also as a reminder to people just how important the work is that SOOR does for athletes like Katie.

“I’ve seen firsthand how important the role is of Special Olympics Oregon,” said Linda, “it helps people like Katie gain self-confidence and employment. There is still too much separation in what people with disabilities are not included in and should be. They need to be part of a blended community rather than a spectator. We are more alike than we are different.”

That smiling face at the end of the 5k race for Linda was Anne Dunn, waiting for a hug. They embraced in memory of Katie.