Karen Gaffney

"On the outside you and I might be different, but on the inside we are the all the same." Karen Gaffney, keynote speaker at the Special Olympics Delaware Empowerment and Project Unify conferences.

NEWARK - Karen Gaffney has swum across the English Channel in 60-degree water while battling enormous waves and dodging jelly fish.

She once swam for nine straight hours while crossing Lake Tahoe.

She has even "Escaped from Alcatraz," boasting, "Unlike some of the prisoners, I lived to talk about it."

The fact she has done these things would be impressive under any circumstances. The fact she did them without the use of her left leg due to a lifelong hip problem, makes it even more amazing.

But those feats are nothing compared to her biggest challenge: Making friends.

Gaffney, 34, has Down syndrome, and traveled across the country from Portland, Ore., to deliver a simple yet profound message to her audience: "There are people in your schools who are different, just like me. Just like me, they want to have friends. Or better yet, a circle of friends."

Her message was heard loud and clear by the over 450 high school students, Special Olympics Delaware athletes and family members gathered Sunday at Clayton Hall for the Empowerment and Project Unify Conferences.

The day was a culmination of months of planning for the annual events, which were put together by committees made up of high school and college students, athletes, parents and volunteers, each involved hoping to make an impact. Athletes and family members enjoyed educational and activity-related sessions, while high school students were inspired by motivational speakers and video presentations.

"I've seen how hurtful the use of the R-word (retard) can be," said Kaitlin Rapella, a senior at William Penn High School and member of the Project Unify conference committee. 

Rapella was one of nearly 300 students from 36 high schools attending the Project Unify Conference to learn more about how they can make a difference within their schools and communities in fostering respect, acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.

"I want to make a difference and help change the environment at my school," Rapella added.

Gaffney talked to the audience about her days as a student at St. Mary's Academy, where she maintained a 3.0 grade point average and earned two varsity letters in swimming.

"The gymnasiums and cafeterias and hallways can be a very lonely place for people like me," she explained. "Making friends is easy for some, but for me it's harder than my swims."

Gaffney went on to earn an Associate of Science degree from Portland Community College and then founded the Karen Gaffney Foundation, which, according to the website, is dedicated to championing the journey to full inclusion in families, schools, communities and the workplace for people with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities.

Many of those champions were in attendance on Sunday.

"People with disabilities really aren't that much different except they might take more time to grasp things that often even we sometimes have difficulty grasping," said Will Beck, a sophomore at Salesianum whose younger brother has Down syndrome. "But other than that, they really are no different than the rest of us. They like to have a good time, just like me and my friends do."

Gaffney spoke for nearly 20 minutes and you could hear a pin drop when she told the audience: "On the outside you and I might be different, but on the inside, we are the same - we all want to have friends."

She then thanked the crowd for the opportunity to speak to them ... and they stood in unison, to thank her for the message.

Reach Jon Buzby at jonbuzby@hotmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jonbuzby.

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