Karen Schelinder

She knew a life path of helping others

Karen Schelinder (2013)
Karen Schelinder followed a path of helping others, ever since she served as a Lutheran church parish worker in the 1960s.

When someone sought help, her philosophy had been simple.

“There’s a reason they need it,” said Schelinder, told NDAD in an early 2013 interview.

Karen died the following year at age 66.
In the last part of her life, Karen provided information-and-referral services for people with disabilities as a part-time worker at Options Interstate Resource Center for Independent Living in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Schelinder’s approach?  She imagined herself or a loved one in the place of that person in need, “then you just start searching and  researching and finding out what help you can get,” she said.  “And you help people to advocate for that.”

She credited that attitude to her upbringing in a small Lutheran family of Dutch and German ancestry in the southwestern Minnesota town of Clara City.  As a child, “I would always think, ‘If this is my grandma…’ or ‘If this is someone in my family, what would I do?’ ” said Schelinder, a University Lutheran Church member who turned regularly to her faith throughout her life.

Schelinder spoke as someone who needed help at times. Her health was challenged by kidney failure – she had a kidney transpl
Karen Schelinder uses her power chair in 2013 to get to her van, which had a wheelchair lift.
Karen Schelinder uses her power chair in 2013 to get to her van, which had a wheelchair lift installed with financial help from NDAD.
ant in 1988 – plus arthritis, osteoarthritis and gradual-onset scleroderma, a systemic, chronic autoimmune disease.

“I describe it as a disease that works inside and outside your body,” she said in 2013, sitting comfortably in her power wheelchair. Her fingers, noticeably bent sharply at the knuckles, hadn’t been opened for several years. “You can have fingers like mine, where the muscles and ligaments will not straighten out. Your skin will be very, very tight. Mine, it was at the very beginning. You usually have a smaller mouth. My skin, it’s not nearly as tight as it was at the beginning.” Her muscles became weak, making it increasingly harder to walk independently.

She faced more than three decades of adjustments, frustrations and loss. Part of that time, her husband of 40 years, the Rev. Roger Schelinder, a Lutheran minister, battled cancer. He died in 2002, but not before the pair raised three children.

It even took a few years before the scleroderma was correctly diagnosed. “But it’s never stopped me from working, from doing what I want to do,” she said, chuckling softly, proud of that personal accomplishment.

A former Valley Memorial Homes volunteer coordinator and housing manager, Schelinder went to work for Red River Valley Community Action after recovering from her kidney transplant.  As emergency services director, she helped low-income families with housing, rent, electricity and heating, plus ran an emergency shelter home for women. Very rewarding work, she said.

But scleroderma issues required hospitalization, ultimately preventing Schelinder from maintaining her Community Action job beyond 20 years. “So I recouped and recovered, and I thought, OK, I’m going to retire. I can do that,” she recalled, smiling. “Then I found out I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t be home all the time. I needed to be out and about doing something again. It wasn’t a financial thing so much -- not that finances can’t hurt. It was much more of a ‘I’m not that type of person’ thing.”

Schelinder got the job at Options, one of several Grand Cities non-profits for which she served as a board member or president. “I try to stay as active and as independent as I can,” she said.

Before she moved to East Grand Forks, NDAD helped her twice, working with the North Dakota Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to pay for devices to assist vehicle accessibility in 2001 and again in 2009, when she bought a new van using an NDAD financial loan for assistive devices.

“I’ve always appreciated NDAD,” Schelinder said. “You know, they’re always listening and willing to do what they can do. They’ve gone the extra mile. And it’s not like, ‘We’re helping you and we’re done with you,’ that type of thing. They’re there afterwards. . . . It’s just not that they’re helping you because it’s their job. They’re helping you because they want to.”

And that sounds just like Schelinder herself had been in life.

-- Mike Brue

The writer is communications director for NDAD.

NOTE: Article is an updated version of the original, which was published in 2013.