Saturday, March 10, 2007

By Diana L. Chapman

A beloved Dana Middle School teacher, who came into field of education later in life and carried on a brave face for the school’s staff and students while she faced a terminal illness, passed away Tuesday night at the age of 51.
Kimberly Larsen, held many other occupations including raising goats, before becoming a full fledged special education teacher for the past five years at the middle school where she snatched the hearts of many students and cemented close relations with staff members.
As a volunteer at Dana, my limited amount of time with Kimberly led me to respect her as she continued to bring a vibrant energy to the campus, despite her fight with cervical cancer, and always told everyone she was doing great with a big smile.
The staff appeared lulled by her faith that she would survive and was shocked and heartbroken when she died suddenly at her San Pedro home.
“Kimberly loved kids and life,” said Principal Terry Ball, who was confounded by the times he went to help Kimberly and found her helping him instead. “She poured herself into her work, not because she was a workaholic, but because of her love for kids. When she was ill, I wasn’t only lulled by her faith, but by her upbeat an exuberant personality. When I would try to encourage her, she would turn tables on me and end up encouraging me—no matter how ill she felt. I always felt better after I spoke with her. We all continue to grieve and be heartbroken.”
While she decided to pursue an educational course later in life, her friends at the school said after she tried several other careers she returned to the one thing she loved ….”children,” explained her close friend, Brian Spencer, a counselor at the school.
Quickly after she arrived, Brian explained, they had a bit of a “who are you” attitude and then realized that they had similar priorities: they were there for children, they were there to help people and they were both extremely forgiving even when people treated them harshly.
After that, they were so close it was as though they’d known each other all their lives and Brian became close with the entire family, including her 15-year-old son, Cameron, and her husband, Brad.
“I knew I had a special connection with her and I never thought anyone else saw that,” explained Brian, who said he later discovered she had established similar friendships with many others. “It was just how we connected. It was just how she was. She fought for people. She fought for her students. And she didn’t have a problem with that. She has a passion for children and a passion for life.”
Calling her “Earth Momma,” Brian said when you find a friendship like that, it’s something to be cherished – which others at the school full-heartedly agreed with – and most of all – she taught her special education students to be their own greatest advocates.
Students who had graduated constantly came back to praise Kimberly for the efforts she acclaimed for them, often carrying gifts and words of appreciation -- especially that she taught them that no one could fight better for a student then the student themselves.
“She was just great with kids and she always as very protective,” said Dana’s special education coordinator, Hengameh Rahmanou. “She was always on the internet doing research trying to do the right for her kids. She had kids to this day still coming back to see her. She’s such a well-known figure.”
At one point, Kimberly became the special education coordinator but became frustrated when she found she wasn’t having enough one-on-one- relationships with children. She dropped the position to return to teaching.
“She was my rock,” said Sherry Graves, a special education clerk at Dana. “All I had to do is let her know what I needed or what a student needed and it would happen. Her students always came back to see her.”
Kimberly joined Dana in 2001 after years in a series of other occupations, including raising goats, being a full-fledged nursery manager and prior to that was a substitute teacher for three years. She also taught kindergarten at Point Fermin Elementary School. But before ever beginning a career in education, Kimberly gathered a vast knowledge about plant life and managed plant nurseries for five years from 1987 until 1993 in Albuquerque, N.M. and later held a similar post from 1993 to 1998 in Bellingham, Wash. Her family owned a farm in Ferndale, Wash. before returning to San Pedro, where she was born.
Brian, the counselor, said he has to fight away tears just thinking about Kimberly and how she would visit his office to help him take care of his plants. Several employees said they were dependent on her not only to brighten their day, but to come in and nurture the plants she had bought them.
Kimberly graduated with BA in Philosophy in 1987 from the University of New Mexico and when she returned to her birth place of San Pedro, she attained a master’s degree from Cal State University, Dominquez Hills, in special education.
She is survived by her, son, Cameron, her husband Brad; her parents, Ethel and Rorvik Johnson, of San Pedro; a sister, Diane Berkey of Washington and a brother, Dennis Berkey of Colorado. She is also survived by numerous cats and dogs she’d rescued.
A celebration of her life has been schedule for Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m at the Cabrillo Beach Youth Waterfront Sports Center, 3000 Shoshonean Road. Instead of flowers, the family has requested that visitors bring food for this event.
The family also requests that those wanting to given donations to either her son’s college fund or a pet rescue organization. To give to Cameron’s college fund, makes checks payable to the Dana Staff Association for a college fund and drop them off at Dana’s main office.
Or because Kimberly was a woman “who cherished all living things” and rescued many animals, donations can be sent in remembrance of her to Rover Rescue, P.O. Box 424, Redondo Beach ,California or visit the website: under the “You Can Help” section indicating the donation is in remembrance of Kimberly.
Please post your thoughts about Kimberly at the Underdog site because that’s exactly what she was -- a fighter for the underdogs in life.