Obituary: Barb Sorum, advocate for students with disabilities

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2013 - 8:25 PM

Often by the time Barb Sorum got a call, the parents of a student with a disability were angry or frustrated with their kid’s unmet educational needs, and they didn’t know which way to turn.

It was Sorum’s job to make sure that child’s right to an education was met. She brought a rare blend of “Minnesota nice” and toughness to a difficult job that affected countless young lives as she advocated for what they needed — and for their acceptance in the schools.

Sorum, of Edina, died Dec. 7. A private person, she never wanted others to know how old she was, even at her funeral.

“She worked well with people in difficult situations so that it didn’t become adversarial and so that she would work for a good solution on behalf of kids and families,” said Charlotte Ryan, formerly a consultant for students with emotional and behavior disorders at the Minnesota Department of Education.

“Barb had a way of coming into even the most contentious situations and keeping cool, and being a good listener,” said Emily Knight, former director of special education for Westonka’s public schools. “That’s hard to come by. She was one in a million.”

For more than 30 years, she worked for the Minnesota Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, for the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health and for PACER, a Minnesota nonprofit organization that provides information, training and assistance to parents of kids and young adults with disabilities.

She was also a contract student advocate for the Minnetonka public schools, until her declining health forced her retirement 18 months ago.

“She would come in when a parent was feeling as though their child was not getting what he or she needed to have, and she was extremely tactful and easy to work with,” Knight said. “She was just such a respectful communicator. She’d listen to both points of view. She was an advocate for the parent and the family. Those situations can get very ugly, but Barb kept her attention on the child.”

Sorum, a grandmother, kept on working despite a serious lung ailment that required her to use a portable tank to force air into her lungs.

“She kept at it a lot longer than we thought she should have, but that was my mom,” said daughter Susan Hamilton of Rockport, Texas.

“She was such a strong advocate for kids” that rain, snow or sleet didn’t deter her, said Deborah Saxhaug, executive director of Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health.

“It was common to see her — when she’d come in to work for us, or when she’d go to advocate for a child at a school — she’d have her briefcase in one hand, her purse over her shoulder, a 30-pound oxygen tank over her shoulder as well and, toward the end, she added to that a cane,” Saxhaug said.

“Nothing stopped her. She really loved this work. She was passionate about it, and I think that’s what kept her going over the years.”

Sorum was known to peers as the “go-to person” for understanding and training on laws, including one enacted by Congress in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities have an equal opportunity to get a free, appropriate public education, Saxhaug said.

“If anybody had a question, you just had to call Barb,” she said. “She didn’t have to dig in any book, she just knew it.”

Sorum was preceded in death by her husband, Norman Sorum.

In addition to daughter Susan Hamilton, survivors include children David Sorum of Coon Rapids and Peggy Sorum of St. Louis Park, as well as three grandchildren.

Services have been held.

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