Paula Goldberg, Minnesota advocate for kids with disabilities, dies at 79

five people stand in black and white
The original five employees of PACER Center when it opened in South Minneapolis in 1977: Paula Goldberg, Marci Bergdahl, Joan Schoepke, Evy Anderson, and Marge Goldberg
Courtesy of PACER Center

Former colleagues and friends on Monday recalled the life and legacy of Paula Goldberg, a longtime advocate for children with disabilities in Minnesota and the nation who died Sunday at age 79. 

Goldberg was executive director of PACER Center, a Twin Cities-based organization she co-founded in 1977 to help parents of children with disabilities connect with each other. She died of natural causes at her home in California, the group said in a statement.

“It is a blow,” said PACER Board Member Kathy Graves. “She’s not like one in a million, she’s like one in 10 million. She’s an extraordinary person and … she’s been so closely involved in our lives for so many years that it's just hard to imagine not having her here with us. It’s a tremendous loss to the disability world, and to my family especially.”

Graves’ son Sam, who has cerebral palsy, said Goldberg hired him as an intern and then later in a paid position at PACER Center where he researched recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. Goldberg, he said, could be an exacting boss but was always kind and supportive.

“Whenever I met someone new and Paula was there, she would tell them the story of how she met me when I was 3 years old,” he said. “She was a wonderful person.”

PACER’s grown significantly in the years since its founding, with more than 30 programs now targeted to parents, students and professionals.

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Goldberg’s vision around the needs of kids is central to her legacy, Kathy Graves said.

“Her ability to see that there's problems with bullying with kids with disabilities, and really take that and run with it, to see the impact technology could have on the lives of kids with disabilities, and, you know, build that into this wonderful resource,” she said.

Since the announcement, remembrances of Goldberg have been coming in on the PACER website from across the country. Many remember her as a staunch advocate and fierce leader; others recall her as a friend and confidant.

Isabel C. Garcia, former President and CEO of Parent to Parent in Miami, says she first worked with Goldberg in Washington, D.C., in 1998 as she was pursuing a grant to support parents with kids with disabilities. Since then, Garcia said they remained in touch, and called her a “friend, mentor and confidant.”

When Garcia’s 38-year-old daughter died last year, Goldberg was one of the first to call her and offer support. She said Goldberg had a giving nature and was very authentic.

“If she could help, she would definitely do it for you — friend or not, you know, friend or foe,” Garcia said.

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who served on PACER’s advisory board, called Goldberg a “visionary leader” who provided counsel to her family after their daughter was born with a later-resolved swallowing issue.

“Through our decades of friendship, I watched Paula advocate with such joy. She improved so many people’s lives. She never rested on her laurels. She was always ready to take PACER to the next level,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “We will miss her.” 

Goldberg is survived by her son, Robert and five grandchildren.

Her daughter-in-law, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, noted that Goldberg “started her early career as a teacher in Minnesota. She saw how isolating it could be to be a parent of a child with a disability,” which led her to form PACER.

Sandberg noted there was a sign in the PACER Center offices that read “nothing is impossible.” In a statement Sunday, she said those words aptly described how Goldberg viewed life.

PACER’S associate director, Gretchen Godfrey, has been named its interim executive director.