Aaron Paulson isn’t just a guy crunching numbers behind tall cubical walls.
The 41-year-old Hearthwood resident is one of 1,124 employees at the Bonneville Power Administration’s Ross Complex at 5411 Northeast Highway 99 helping to make positive changes there, and much of the fuel for his work comes from one heck of a backstory.
The BPA, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy that markets wholesale electric power from the Northwest, has joined many companies working to promote efforts toward diversity and inclusion. It installed a department specifically devoted to that topic recently, which Paulson quickly took an interest in — especially around disability awareness. He was born in Bombay, India, in 1977, when polio was common. He contracted the disease, which is transmitted through feces, when he was only 6 months old.
Polio has since been eradicated in India, but Paulson, who spent time in an orphanage in India before being adopted as a 1-year-old by parents in Northeast Portland, still lives with the effects. Paulson moves with the aid of forearm crutches after the disease damaged nerves in his legs. But he doesn’t let it stop him.
Extremely active outside of work, he’s a talented swimmer. He received a gold medal on the USA swim team in the 1996 Paralympic games in Atlanta, Ga. He has also has competed in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992; Sydney, Australia, in 2000; Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 2002; Athens, Greece, in 2004; Minneapolis, Minn., in 2005; and Beijing, China, in 2008. Paralympic games, an opportunity for those with disabilities to compete, are held shortly after the Olympic games.
“I think, sometimes it’s very hard for people to broach that topic (disabilities), because it’s that — ‘Oh, I don’t want to offend you,’ or, ‘How would I ask that question?’ ” Paulson said. “It’s like, kids would come up to me and ask, ‘What’s wrong with you, why do you wear crutches?’ Parents would be grabbing them, but I’d be like, ‘No, no, no, let’s have this conversation.’
“I’d explain to them, ‘Well, I use crutches because my legs don’t work as well as yours.’ Even though a 5-year-old isn’t probably going to understand the word ‘polio,’ but at least they’re asking,” he said.
At the urging of a new human resources manager at the Diversity and Inclusion Department, Paulson rallied together a Disabilities Awareness Group at BPA, which he said had been defunct for a decade. He believes the group — along with some other initiatives, including an LGBT group — is helping people better understand what others go through. Even if the conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward for some.
“I’m finding the more that comes out, it’s better,” he said. Earlier this year, the company awarded Paulson with its Administrator’s Award for Achievement in Equal Opportunity Employment or Diversity.
His job as a compliance specialist consists of a multitude of duties, and the title isn’t exactly true to his tasks, which have changed over the years to better fit his relationship-oriented personality.
In the last year, under a new manager, Paulson started tackling space planning in the transmission business operations department, which to the outsider may sound a bit vague. Essentially, he’s working with various departments and outside companies that come into the BPA and need areas to work on projects.
For the previous nine years, he was doing more technical and isolated work that didn’t require as much contact with others. He was hired as a compliance specialist in 2008 ahead of an audit.
He was doing a lot of technical writing “where you have to remove a lot of personality,” according to his newest manager, Jamie Pederson.
Pederson, who has been in the position since February (though in the federal government for almost 30 years), came in and saw that Paulson would work better with a different focus.
“I don’t think compliance was a good fit for him. He gave it his all, just like every single thing that he does. I just think that it was an uncomfortable fit for him,” she said. “He really enjoys talking with people and working with people. He likes to go out and get information and share that.”
He’s always enjoyed helping and working with others. Before he worked at BPA, he helped run a YMCA teen center in Sherwood, Ore.
And outside of work walls, he’s still active, though perhaps slowing down. He recently sustained a few mysterious injuries in his abdomen that he believes are the result from years of intense physical activity. Doctors installed mesh pads inside of his abdomen to strengthen ligaments as they continue to figure out what’s wrong.
In 2016, after much practice on Lacamas Lake, Paulson had the goal of getting a spot on the Paralympic kayaking team to compete in something outside of swimming. He fell short and didn’t end up going to the games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but he doesn’t see it as a failure. He’s grateful he’s had any of these opportunities at all.
“I think it’s the feeling of, the sense of a little bit of guilt,” Paulson said, referring to where his intense drive to do good for himself and others in life might come from. “Because out of the millions of kids or people in the world who don’t have these opportunities or who are adopted … I’ve had this opportunity. This gift of life.”
Paulson will continue to visit children at Shriners Hospitals, where he was a patient from the age of 1 to 21, and share his success story. And the 2020 Paralympics, to take place in Tokyo, Japan, aren’t totally out of the question.
“At this point, I’m just going to see how it goes. Just getting back in the boat is the goal,” Paulson said.