Paula Goldberg is remembered for her strong advocacy and passion for helping children with disabilities. Goldberg, a cofounder of PACER Center and a driving force behind its anti-bullying efforts, died May 15. at her winter home in Santa Monica. She was 79 and lived for part of the year in Minneapolis.
Tributes from parents, fellow advocacy and community leaders poured in after her death, especially those who joined with her in the first generation of parent advocates. While PACER grew into a large organization under Goldberg’s leadership, she is =widely remembered for always reaching out personally to others.
“She was such a force,” said New Hampshire resident Judith Raskin. They met in 1977, when the parent network was just beginning to be supported by the U.S. Department of Education It grew into the national system of Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers.
“Paula grew a small organization into one known throughout the country, and did so much good for children and young adults with disabilities and their families,” Raskin said.
Others shared memories of how Goldberg helped their children and families, with children growing up to successfully finish college and find meaningful work. Countless children, teens and adults have benefitted from PACER’s classes, camps and conferences, which have been held statewide and pivoted to virtual status during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Paula was an incredible advocate and motivator,” said Rita Wiersma of Stillwater. “Early in my journey she invited me to join the PACER Board as a young parent of a child with disabilities. She ignited a flame in me that strengthened me as a fellow advocate and motivated me to continue the work.”
Goldberg grew up in Rochester and Minneapolis, where she learned from her parents the importance of supporting her community. Her mother, Helen Friedman, was a Yiddish interpreter who would often take her daughter along when she provided interpretation at the Rochester State Hospital.
Goldberg graduated from St. Louis Park High School and then went on to earn a B.S. in education with honors from the University of Minnesota. She did graduate work at the University of Minnesota and the University of Chicago.
She taught elementary school in Chicago and Minneapolis, and had had a number of special needs students in her classrooms. She authored two League of Women Voters studies on special education in the Minneapolis Public Schools. That started decades of advocacy at the local, state and national levels.
At the capitol she met Marge Goldberg (no relation), a lobbyist with the Learning Disabilities Association. The two noted that while schools were doing trainings for teachers and principals and educators, no one was informing parents of their rights and resources. The seeds of PACER Center were planted.
Laura Clark, editorial director of CafeMom and mom.com, interviewed Goldberg about her life and how PACER Center began in 1977. “When Paula Goldberg was a young mother of two in Minneapolis, she was confronted with a life-defining choice—go to law school, where she had been accepted, or lead a nonprofit organization with a mission close to her heart. The former teacher decided on the latter.”
The Goldbergs obtained $20,000 from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). “We just had no expectations,” Goldberg said. “I thought in three years we’d close PACER. We would have served parents throughout the state and I’d go home. But parents came to us with needs, and we would develop programs and write grants. That’s how PACER evolved.”
Goldberg always credited her husband Mel, who died in 1998, and her two sons for supporting PACER over the years. The nonprofit got its start in a humble storefront on Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, with card tables, used office furniture from 3M, and five eager employees. Most workers were part-time. PACER has more than 60 employees today and is in Minnetonka.
An array of programs followed. The COUNT ME In puppet program, which teaches children about inclusion, started in 1979. the puppets and other programs are now used worldwide.
The first benefit, held in 1982 at Children’s Theater Company, drew 75 people. It grew into a large event with well-known performers. Other events including PACER Rocks for Kids, would follow.
In 1983, PACER championed national legislation for parent training and information centers and technical assistance. The following year it became a Technical Assistance for Parents Project (TAPP) Regional Office. In 1985 PACER was involved in establishing post-high school transition services within MDE. Today, Minnesota is considered a national leader in transition.
The Simon Technology Center assistive technology program opened in 1997, with state-of-the art equipment That same year PACER became the National Center of the Technical Assistance ALLIANCE for Parent Centers, coordinating technical assistance among the plus-100 Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers across the nation. More technological innovation would follow.
PACER moved to its current headquarters in 2000.
Goldberg was at the forefront at PACER, as she was with the founding of National Bullying Prevention Month, which takes place every October. In interviews, Goldberg has pointed out that that children with disabilities get bullied two to three times more than typical children.
She told Clark about the impetus to focus on bullying. “In about 2005 or 2006, I got this letter from a father who worked in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and he wrote, ‘My son has cognitive disabilities and he’s in seventh grade in a good suburban school, and every day six boys take his head and beat it against his locker over and over and over again. And my son is crying, he doesn’t want to go to school. He says he really can’t read and concentrate anymore, and the principal wouldn’t do anything. And these six boys made my son wear diapers at school, gave him a laxative and pulled his diapers down.’ It was the most horrific letter I have ever received. And I called five PACER staff people into an office, and I said, ‘We are going to change the culture in this society. We, PACER, are going to make everyone’s child safe.
How are we going to do that?’ We asked for $100,000 to (make a) website for elementary kids. It’s called KidsAgainstBullying.org, and it’s animated, and it incorporated kids with disabilities into it.”
The website launched in 2006, and the National Bullying Prevention Center began. When people asked for resources to counter teen bullying, PACER programs expanded with TeensAgainstBullying.org.
Goldberg spoke about how she would hear from young people who were considering suicide, but thought otherwise after reading the website. The websites and center offer advocacy for children, teens and families. In 2015 an anti-bullying center opened in Los Angeles.
In 2011 Goldberg and PACER advocates were invited to the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. Goldberg was also invited to testify at the Office for Civil Rights on behalf of students with disabilities and bullying. Those were among many national-level roles she played.
Supporters have vowed that her advocacy should continue. “I suggest we make it clear to legislators at state and federal levels that although Paula is gone, she leaves behind a fierce cohort of advocates and parents trained to lobby for the needs of disabled students and their families as she did,” said Beth-Ann Bloom of Minneapolis.
Goldberg’s services were held in late May. She was preceded in death by her parents, husband and son David. She is survived by her son Robert, grandchildren and many other family members and friends.
Information from PACER Center and CafeMom was used to compile this obituary.