When Karen Shirk sees a wrong, she can’t help but try to make it right.
“There’s just so much injustice in the world,” she said. “It’s not going to be a better place unless people do something about it, so I can’t be quiet.”
After more than 20 years of placing service dogs with people with disabilities, Shirk, 60, is now the president of the Dayton chapter of PFLAG, which offers support, education and advocacy for LGBTQ+ individuals, allies and issues. For Shirk, who is a genderqueer lesbian with a disability, both organizations are meaningful.
She founded the nonprofit 4 Paws for Ability in 1998 after she was turned down for a service dog by 15 agencies with long waiting lists. Shirk, who has muscular dystrophy, eventually began training her own service dog, but she knew she couldn’t be the only person who needed a service dog who couldn’t get one.
What started with her, two dogs and a one-bedroom apartment grew to a $6 million organizations that placed about 1,500 dogs with children, adults and veterans with disabilities before she retired two years ago.
“She’s changed the lives of so many kids and veterans, and even the puppy raisers,” said Emily Gibson, who raised puppies herself for the organization when Shirk was at the helm. Gibson, of Dayton, nominated her friend as a Dayton Daily News Community Gem.
Shirk has been a mentor and also a great leader, she said. Those leadership skills and her knowledge of community issues have made Shirk’s PFLAG role a natural fit.
“Once you’re connected with her in some way, she will fight for you,” Gibson said. “She will find some way to help you through whatever you’re going through.”
Shirk, of Xenia Township, said that PFLAG enabled her to find a community when her children, whom she had adopted as a single parent, began to leave home.
While there is still work to be done, Shirk said there has been progress. Decades ago there was no public representation of people like her. Now there are lesbian and gay superheroes, TV characters and companies that support the community.
“When we were invisible, it was easy for people who don’t like anyone who’s different than them to pretend we didn’t exist,” she said.
Shirk said she is proud of the PFLAG board, which has helped to educate both first responders about how best to serve this community and teachers about how to support LGBTQ+ youth in their schools.
What’s more, the group awards scholarships to LGBTQ+ students and an ally every year and plans to start informal in-person get-togethers like picnics.
“With the climate the way it is, we need to have safe meetups,” she said.
Shirk also is part indigenous and sells her Native American beaded items online at Aiko’s Gallery. As a member of so many minority groups, Shirk is very aware of the discrimination and stigmas that exist.
“I think it’s important for us as humans – instead of hating, instead of singling out – to lend a hand,” Shirk said.