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One Monticello Life ‘ “Polar Plunge’s” Karen Caldwell

February 12th, 2012 by

“When you’re working with special needs, they’re giving you the best they’ve got. When you think of everyday people, you’ve got people that aren’t giving their best, they know they’re not, and they’re okay with it.” – Karen Caldwell

"AJ Huffman joined the Caldwell's team at the 2011 Polar Plunge.

On June 25, 1967 in Heidelberg, Germany, Morris and Gertrud Donham welcomed their youngest child into the world. As they counted her ten fingers and ten toes, they likely wondered what her future would hold. What would she do with her life? What impact would this child have on the people she encountered? Today, citizens of Monticello, AR are thankful for the daughter they raised and the blessings she has spent her life pouring out to others.

Karen Caldwell is currently well known for her involvement in SOAR (Special Olympics Arkansas) and she and her husband Jason always “make a splash” during their once-every-twenty-four-hour Polar Plunges at the annual event to raise money for the Special Olympics. The story behind how she became the caring and generous person she is today is one that many may not know.

“My dad was stationed in Heidelberg with the ARMY and my mom is from Germany. They met on a military base. Three months after I was born we all moved to Monticello because that was my dad’s hometown.” – Karen

Karen is the youngest of three children. Her two older siblings are Doris Jackson and Rickie Donham. She said that her childhood was great and she has many fond memories.

“Summer time was spent hanging out at the ballpark playing softball and fall was spent at the bowling center watching my parents bowl, and bowling in youth league on Saturday mornings. I played basketball in junior high and was a manager through my high school years.” “I remember going to Hot Springs for numerous years. My dad was the Commander of the local VFW Hut. We stayed at the Arlington and enjoyed swimming and going to the soda shop and getting cherry cokes. My best memory of my youth is playing softball and hitting my first homerun over the fence at what was once Henley Field. My most favorite memories are bowling in state bowling tournaments while in the youth program.”

Karen’s involvement with bowling is what helped lead her to get involved with the Special Olympics. She began helping special needs children learn to bowl and said, “They were excited whether they knocked down one or all ten. That pulled me in. After volunteering a few times… I got it. I grasped it. When you’re working with special needs, they’re giving you the best they’ve got. When you think of everyday people, you’ve got people that aren’t giving their best, they know they’re not, and they’re okay with it. These kids pour everything they have into what they’re doing. Whether they do well or not, you know they tried their absolute hardest.”

Mrs. Caldwell graduated from Monticello High School in 1985 and then attended UAM for four years. She then put her college career on hold to enter the working world.

“My first job right out of high school was waitressing at what once was the Branding Iron. I did that for the summer and then started working at the bowling center and being a bowler, that was a dream job. I worked for my brother at his sporting goods store for a few months and then started working at Union Bank at night updating their computers. In 1988 I started working for SeaArk Marine, Inc. where I am currently today. I’ve been there for 23 years.”

On December 8, 1990, Karen married Jason Caldwell, and they began building their life together. From their starting point, the couple could have no way of knowing the trials that life would bring them through.

Jason and Karen gladly welcomed their first born child into their lives on February 8, 1993. A beautiful baby girl entered the world, and they named her Taylor.

Karen said,  “Immediately after she was born they knew something was wrong. She had no muscle tone, like a Raggedy Ann doll. I don’t think we really had a name to it until she was 9 months. They had no idea what her prognosis was… they couldn’t tell us anything.”

Finally, the family received the diagnosis of Congenital Fibrotype Disproportion. “It is a rare muscle disorder and she had a very severe form.”

“She was totally dependent on Jason and me. We moved to Warren for her to be able to attend a specialized daycare. At the time I didn’t realize it, but she taught me patience, which I use every single day. I think this makes it so easy for me to volunteer and work with Special Olympics.”

As Taylor’s condition worsened, Jason and Karen had to begin planning for the unthinkable.

“Probably about two weeks before she passed away Jason and I had picked out pall bearers. I don’t know what made us do that, but we had that all planned. It helped a lot not to have to figure those things out later…”

Many parents would describe losing a child as something they could never make it through; A tragedy that would make it difficult to move forward in life. MLive asked Karen how she and Jason not only found peace after the loss of their daughter, but used their experience to give back so much to others.

“I kind of looked at it that children are a gift from God…we’re given the gift and sometimes you have to return it. Taylor was one of those that she was given to us, she came in and affected everyone in her own way, and it was just time for her to go. She is where we want to be. You get a little jealous when you look at it that way.”

Seeing Jason and Karen today, and their fierce desire to give back, it might be hard to imagine all they have gone through. The families they have helped and impacted over the past several years, and the Special Olympic Athletes that they have helped gain confidence and accomplish achievements, cannot speak enough about how much Karen means to them.

“Karen is a very kind and caring person. She is deeply committed to the Special Olympics and truly cares about all of the athletes both inside Special Olympics and outside, as well. She has dedicated her time, her money, her talents, and heart to every athlete. She has been a blessing in Kendall’s life! I will always be grateful for Karen and all she has done for us and for Special Olympics. Karen is just as inspirational to the kids as the kids are to her.” – KT Patten – mother of Special Olympics athlete Kendall Graham – a 7th grader at MMS

Mrs. Caldwell gives all of the credit for her role in the Special Olympics to her brother Rickie Donham.

“My brother is the one that brought us into the Special Olympics. He was in the Sigma Tau’s at UAM and Dr. Joe Guenter came in and said, “You guys are volunteering for this event,” and he’s been in it since.  One of the greatest gifts he’s given my nieces is that they have been brought up in the Special Olympics, because they have tolerance and patience. That’s one of the best gifts he could have given them… he’s kind of like my hero for that.” – Karen

When asked what her favorite part of volunteering with SOAR is, Karen said, “At summer games in Searcy I’ve been the track keeper and having the athlete walk by and say “look what I won!” They take time to stop and show me their accomplishment. Last year I had the opportunity to work the finish line at the races and they stop and give you a hug or a high five when they cross. Their sense of pride in completing the task is my favorite part.”

Mrs. Caldwell spoke about how far society has come in embracing and accepting people with special needs, but also how much more she hopes for in the future.

“With special needs and special Olympics we do a really good job of introducing our athletes into the community. We do a very bad job of introducing the community to special needs. I would love to see the community become more aware that it’s not a disease. You cannot catch it. Embrace it; don’t shun them like “I’m going to get this.”

To help continue the efforts to raise both awareness and funding for the Special Olympics, Jason and Karen Caldwell are some of the main participants in The Polar Plunge. While most teams and individuals plunge into the cold water one time, Jason and Karen begin their “freezin’ for a reason” 24 hours before the actual event. Together, they plunge once an hour, for 24 hours. The 24th plunge is the one where they join the other teams for one last dip in the pond.

Their amazing contributions do not go unnoticed.

“I don’t believe in any way that our area Special Olympics would be what it is without Karen. She & her husband give in a way that far exceeds monetary donations; they give their time, their patience, and their love for the athletes. If you have never seen Karen in action when it comes to Special Olympics, you have 24 chances to next weekend, as she will “out plunge” us all by doing it once an hour for 24 hours. She’s just that kind person. The one that doesn’t say “I’d LIKE to help” but instead DOES it, in the most over the top way imaginable.” – Shelley Smith

When asked why she does all she does for others, Mrs. Caldwell simply said, “I’m just the average person doing what I think is right.”

MLive would like to thank Mrs. Caldwell for being such an outstanding citizen of Monticello. We applaud your example to others to simply “do what is right.”

 

7 Responses to “One Monticello Life ‘ “Polar Plunge’s” Karen Caldwell”

  1. sheila says:

    Congratulations Karen. You are very deserving for all the wonderful things you do for others.

  2. Michael Burns says:

    Great article on a great person! I am so glad to know and be friends with someone of this caliber. Karen will undoubtedly put many others well before her and not think twice about it, while doing it humbly! It’s nice to know the spark behind the craziness of jumping in a cold pond in February, once an hour for 24 hours! Karen, I’m glad to know your crazy self!

  3. Courtney says:

    Michael that was well said…..I cant think of a more deserving person to have been chosen for this!!! It is heart touching!! Way to go Mrs. Karen!!!!!

  4. Heather says:

    I absolutely love Jason and Karen! You guys are awesome! You have taught so many people to love and to be accepting! It is awesome! I am so glad to call you guys friends! I know my parents absolutely love you, but so do my sisters and I!

  5. Jennifer says:

    Karen truly is an amazing person!! I know she doesn’t like the ‘spotlight’ but she deserves it!! i am so proud to call both her and Jason friends!! :)

  6. Arlene Russell says:

    Karen doesn’t let life pass her by…she jumps in with both feet and we in her community are all the richer for her enthusiasm, her caring and her work on behalf of special children!

  7. Shelley Smith says:

    LOVE this story! I know Taylor is so proud of her mom & dad!

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