Kerry Kerrigan was relaxing on a rock by the Yampa River one day last summer, enjoying the sun and watching a group of children playing in the water when she noticed something no one else did: One of the children, a young girl, seemed to be caught in the Charlie's Hole rapids.
She watched for a moment, thinking the child was playing or an adult was watching but quickly realized the girl was truly in trouble -- and no one else noticed. In an instant, teenage lifeguard training came rushing back and she jumped from her rock into the water, swam to the girl and dragged her back to safety and the arms of a perplexed parent.
As she climbed back onto her rock to catch her breath and let her adrenaline level drop, she heard the parent ask who she was.
"Oh, that's just Ms. K," was the matter-of-fact reply from a child she had never met. "She helps everybody."
Kerrigan, better known as "Ms. K" to elementary and middle school students in Steamboat Springs, has been helping people for the 20 years she has lived in the Yampa Valley, as a teacher, a coworker, a friend, a role model and an inspiration.
Growing up in Leadville as the second of five children in a close-knit family, with a father who was the superintendent of the school district, teaching and a love of the outdoors were both in Kerrigan's blood.
"I knew the second day of kindergarten that I wanted to be a teacher," Kerrigan said. "I looked around the room and I thought, I could get my own crayons, make things to put on the bulletin boards, make all the kids sit in a line. I was ready."
Active, outdoorsy and admittedly competitive, Kerrigan became both a competitive gymnast and a skier.
When, at age 17, winning a battle against bone cancer required losing her left leg, Kerry's desire to be a teacher didn't waiver. In 1984, already one of the rare people to know her life's calling from a young age, Kerrigan became one of the rare people to move to Steamboat for a full-time job.
Although she had just earned a degree in elementary education, she took the only local position available: A one-year stint replacing a middle-school math teacher on sabbatical.
That one year stretched into eight, then Kerrigan got her master's degree in elementary education and switched from Steamboat Springs Middle School to Strawberry Park Elementary. In the ensuing years, she taught a variety of grades at both of Steamboat's public elementary schools, including a stint as a Teacher on Special Assignment, and ultimately returned to the middle school and her present job as a math and science teacher.
"A good teacher can teach anything; it's not the content, it's the craft," Kerrigan said. "What I focus on is teaching kids -- not teaching a certain subject -- and the process of breaking things down and helping them make connections."
Her teaching skills have been recognized many times. In 2000, she barely missed being named Colorado's Teacher of the Year, instead being honored as one of five runners-up for the award. When the district implemented its TOSA program, selecting highly qualified teachers to take leadership and staff-mentoring roles in the schools, Kerrigan was among the first people recruited.
Fellow teacher Jeanne Lodwick has high praise for Kerrigan's relationship with her students, saying she leads by example in the way she expects them to tackle challenges.
"They know (she) cares about them and loves them, but (she isn't) going to let them get away with doing less than they are capable of," Lodwick said. "She's very frank and honest with them."
During the first week of school, Kerrigan is known to take off her prosthetic leg in front of her class, explain it to the children and let them ask questions. It has an effect Kerrigan is now accustomed to: When parents show up for conferences months later, after children have had plenty of opportunity to describe their teacher, the adults see her cane and inquire whether she sprained her ankle.
Adulthood battles with cancer have taken further toll on her body, but Kerrigan remains positive. While she hasn't turned her personal adversity into a public crusade, she uses her own life experiences to gently help others, young and old, face their own challenges.
"She is very open, and combining that openness and humor and love for people, it's incredible how it's opened up her world and the world of people around her," said Kerrigan's sister, Sue, who shares a house with her in Steamboat Springs.
"She is an awesome, loyal friend," Lodwick said, tears coming to her eyes as she recalled how Kerrigan helped her through a health scare and hospital stay.
With students, "I teach them that stuff happens and you move on," Kerrigan said. "When you are struggling, you can't give up. You do your best, and maybe that's different than someone else's best."
And Kerrigan lives by those words, both in her professional life -- her high standards keep her at school until 7 p.m. many days -- and her personal life.
She serves on several community boards, including the Humble Ranch Education and Therapy Center and managing the annual Steamboat Marathon children's fun run, and also makes time for recreation such as mountain biking, kayaking and master swim classes.
"Teaching is so intense, and swimming is a good way to go into your own zone and get the stress out," Kerrigan said. Her best effort isn't the same as the best efforts of her fellow master swim teammates, she readily admits, but she has a sense of humor about it.
"I'm 15 years older than them and missing two body parts, so I figure I'm doing pretty well. Besides, I get so far behind that from the Stairmasters (inside the recreation center), it looks like I'm in front."
Kayaking, and playing in the Yampa River in general, is another love. Although she is a proficient paddler, she prefers to "take strolls" in the river and play in waves rather than chase high-water adrenaline rushes.
"When I'm in a kayak, I can manage just as well as any two-legged person, maybe better," she said. "On land, I need a cane and crutches and all this to get around. On a boat, I can just get in and go."
It was her love of the river that brought her to Charlie's Hole expecting a relaxing swim that day last summer. Minutes after rescuing the young girl from the rapids, Kerrigan found herself back in the water helping a man save his dog after the pet got a paw wedged between rocks under the wave.
It just proved the child's assertion that "she helps everybody" -- a statement Kerrigan's adult friends agree with heartily.
"She's way more than a teacher," said Cheri Trousil, founder and director of Humble Ranch.
"She is an amazing friend, an amazing confidant for kids in this community and an amazing role model in her integrity and her openness and her setting an example of having fun and getting the job done when it needs to. She is so involved in the community that there are many, many people she touches, not just kids."