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FRAMINGHAM – The late Karen Foran Dempsey co-founded the Framingham Disability Commission. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis as a child, she was an unrelenting advocate for access rights.

For decades, Dempsey was not able to attend events at Historic Village Hall, while using her motorized scooter, as there was no elevator to the second floor ballroom. She fought to change that.

In 2019, Dempsey’s efforts paid off as she was able to ride in the newly-installed elevator to the ballroom and the stage at Village Hall, which was the community’s first-ever Town Hall.

Sadly, Dempsey, died on December 24, 2020, at the age of 54.

Last night, January 26, the Framingham Disability Commission, of which she was a member for more than 18 years, voted unanimously to request the City of Framingham and Mayor Charlie Sisitsky name the ballroom at Historic Village Hall after Karen Foran Dempsey.

City policy requires that to name something after an individual, the person must have died at least a year from the date of the request.

“Karen was a well-respected and dedicated public servant to the City of Framingham and it was an honor to serve with her on the Commission Not only was Karen a knowledgeable advocate and colleague but also a close friend.  We talked on a daily basis about improvements we hoped to make in City infrastructure and the importance of staying on top of them” in regards to Village Hall, said current Framingham Disability Commission Chair Sheryl Goldstein.

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“When Village Hall was under construction I had the opportunity to tour the inside with Karen and her husband Mark, as part of an access compliance inspection. I had never realized the full impact until that point how poor the architectural access was in that building, and how this could be so isolating for those not able to independently go to other areas of the building,” said Goldstein.

“Once the construction was completed July 2019, one of the last events we participated in together was celebrating the ADA anniversary. This was celebrated at Village Hall and showcased the building as well as the access made possible by her and the commissions advocacy. One of the biggest blessings of my life was to be able to see Karen access the top floor of the hall even reach the stage independently, her smile at that moment was priceless,” said Goldstein.

“As part of her legacy to the City of Framingham and commitment to this project the Disability Commission saw it fitting to dedicate the ballroom in her honor,” said Goldstein, who sent a formal letter to the Mayor, Chief Operating Officer Michael Tusino, and the City Council this morning requesting the ballroom be named for the late community advocate.

“Part of Karen’s legacy lives on in Village Hall still. Her passing has left a huge void in the City of Framingham. Her service to the town and now city, as well as her continued support and dedication to equity for people with disabilities, cannot be forgotten. The Framingham Disability Commission requests that the Mayor of Framingham and Framingham City Council memorialize the Village Hall Ballroom in Karen’s name. Additionally, the Commission proposes  that a dedication of this space in Karen’s memory be held on Tuesday, July 26th, 2022, the 32nd Anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” wrote Goldstein to the City of Framingham leaders.

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“From an early age Karen was faced with obstacles, I remember when the Principal at Cameron told her it was too much of a burden to let her use the elevator. She was left to struggle on the stairs, which unfortunately she fell down, and never really walked again. I remember she wasn’t angry, like you would expect, her to be. It was more like she was going to make sure that never happened to another kid. Karen’s mission was about equal access for all, not just some of the time, but all of the times,” said her sister City Council Vice Chair Janet Leombruno.

“The more you told Karen no, the harder she worked to prove you wrong – whether it be going off to college or getting her license or owning a car, getting married, or even having children. She of course had twins,” said Leombruno of her late sister Karen. Karen, herself was a twin with her sister Kathy Foran, a well-known realtor in the City.

“People often overlook the fact that it’s not just the disabled person that is denied access, it is their family,” said Leombruno. At the Village Hall remodel opening with the newly-installed elevator, Leombruno said one of Karen’s sons said he “remembered how his mother could never go upstairs and watch the puppet shows when they were small. It was a memory from when he was 5.”

“Karen never wanted anything special. She didn’t want to be treated special. We didn’t have her for a long time, but she certainly made her short time count big-time,” said Leombruno who said she was touched by the request to name the ballroom after her late sister.

“I am absolutely thrilled to see Karen’s accomplishments on behalf of our disabled and mobility impaired residents recognized in such a meaningful way.Karen’s years of tenacity regarding dignified accessibility to Village Hall which was our first town hall resulted in something that all of us in this community can be proud of. This is such a fitting tribute to an inspiring woman,” said former Chair of the Framingham Board of Selectmen and former at-large City Councilor Cheryl Tully Stoll.

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“Framingham’s Village Hall has an important place in our City’s history. Built in 1834 by Dexter Esty and designed by Solomon Willard, it served as Framingham’s second town hall. It contained offices, school rooms and was Framingham’s first public library space and meeting space. The building was later redesigned by Charles Baker for a new entrance, grand staircase and upstairs meeting rooms. Later, the upstairs meeting rooms evolved into a beautiful ballroom with a stage and dressing rooms. The Village Hall serves as a space that has brought our community together for generations,” wrote the Commission Chair to the City of Framingham leaders.

“For many years, the ballroom unfortunately was out of reach to those members of our community unable to ascend the stairs that led to the public events and community celebrations held there …Then came Karen Foran Dempsey. Karen left us on December 24th, 2020. She was a co-founder and on-going member of the Framingham Disability Commission, where she worked tirelessly to enhance the lives of Framingham’s residents with disabilities,” wrote Goldstein.

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“Despite its inaccessibility, Karen would attend functions at Village Hall, where, in order to be a dedicated community member and active participant, she had no choice but to be carried up and down the stairs due to the Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis that impacted her mobility. On a number of occasions, her twin sons attended a play or function In the ballroom while Karen was left waiting for them downstair,” wrote Goldstein. “Karen set her sights on the Village Hall and was determined to make it accessible for all members of the community, especially those with disabilities who had been previously unable to access the space. Over the years, she was persistent, reminding City leaders that things had to change. She did not let up…It was her mission. Finally, In 2019, Karen’s hard work and determination paid off. Framingham’s Historic Village Hall became accessible to all citizens, with an elevator that not only reached the ballroom but the stage as well, providing opportunities for residents with disabilities to not only attend events held in the ballroom, but encouraging inclusive leadership and full participation by providing access to its stage.” 

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Karen Foran Dempsey in front of Historic Village Hall

Karen Foran Dempsey with her husband Mark and mom Anne in front of Historic Village Hall.

City Councilor Janet Leombruno with her late sister Karen Foran Dempsey.
Dempsey was a School Committee member for District 2 when she died in 2020
Karen Foran Dempsey’s first elevator ride at Historic Village Hall in 2020.
Janet Foran Leombruno. Karen Foran Dempsey & Mark Dempsey in the elevator at Historic Village Hall in 2020.

By editor

Susan Petroni is the former editor for SOURCE. She is the founder of the former news site, which as of May 1, 2023, is now a self-publishing community bulletin board. The website no longer has a journalist but a webmaster.