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Bridging Bionics physical therapist and clinical coordinator Maria Grufstedt assists Leah Potts.

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Living to Give

By Ali Margo, Curtis Wackerle and Christine Benedetti

Photography by Shawn O’Connor

11.27.17

From significant financial donations to the contribution of one’s time, giving to one another is a common cause among people in the Roaring Fork Valley. Here are the profiles of six that have changed lives.

The holidays are a time of giving, and while everyone loves a great present, sometimes the best gifts are the ones that can’t be bought at a store. Here are the profiles of six trajectory-changing choices that have impacted an individual or organization. The list isn’t exhaustive and it’s not comprehensive, but it’s a taste—hopefully an inspiration—of the good that people are doing on a local level. Because giving back to the community may be the best present of all.

GIFT OF MOBILITY 
Leah Potts steadies herself and then, just like that, stands up and starts walking.

Potts broke her neck in a skiing accident at 23 and was paralyzed from the chest down. Now 41, Potts is well-known in Aspen as a Spin instructor, avid skier and athlete who has fought every day for almost 20 years to regain her mobility. Though she can walk with a cane, it’s been strenuous and difficult, and she can only go short distances—until now.

Thanks to Bridging Bionics Foundation, Potts can walk with the assistance of a bionic exoskeleton. This $175,000 Indego robot provides the most advanced neurorehabilitation technology available anywhere in the world. Bridging Bionics has brought two bionic exoskeletons (the second is from Ekso Bionics) to the Roaring Fork Valley, to fitness centers—not hospitals—where clients can work out in a healthy environment that promotes well-being. Since the program launched in 2015, the foundation has gifted 1,723 therapeutic mobility sessions with the exoskeleton and other advanced technologies to just under 50 clients, worth approximately $300 a pop. “The technology is cost-prohibitive, not reimbursable by health insurance year-round and not accessible to the general population of those who are paralyzed,” says Bridging Bionics Executive Director Amanda Boxtel. “But I believe walking should be a human right.”

For Potts, the gift of mobility has renewed her drive to keep pushing. “I get into the robot, and I can practice perfection,” she says. She walks with the exoskeleton once or twice a week at the Snowmass Club. “I haven’t walked a mile in 20 years, and now I can go a half-mile. There are actually so many places I want to walk to, now that I know I can go the distance.”  

GIFT OF A WAY OUT 
Last summer, Mountain Rescue Aspen consistently made headlines as the number of backcountry incidents, including five fatalities on Capitol Peak, continued to increase. But what doesn’t get written about often enough is the fact that MRA, the area’s nonprofit search and rescue team, is 100 percent run by volunteers. “When you look at our building and our vehicles outside, the snowmobiles and the ATVs, and our equipment, that’s where 100 percent of the donations go to; we have no salaries that pay an executive director or other staff,” says Jeff Edelson, MRA president and rescue leader. “We’re an all-volunteer rescue team dedicated to saving lives through backcountry rescue and mountain-safety education.” In addition to operations costs, donations go to training its 50 volunteers (six of whom serve on the board of directors), an extensive process that can take up to two years, and volunteers donate about five hours each week, cumulating to 15,000 hours of time each year, Edelson says.

Jill Cohen and Bernardina Bañeulos at the Pitkin County Library, where they met for nearly a year to practice English and develop career skills.

GIFT OF TIME
Bernardina Bañeulos has a kindergarten education and can’t read or write—Spanish or English. So when the 48-year-old found herself out of work after more than 20 years of housekeeping with a local hotel, she felt hopeless. As the fourth of 11 children, she was not only responsible for her own three children—ages 14, 18 and 24—but also for sending money back to Zacatecas, Mexico, to help support another eight kids, some of whom needed extra aide after her brother was killed in a car accident. “I was worrying because I don’t have money to support them,” she says.

About a year ago, she turned to English in Action, a nonprofit that pairs adult immigrants with English tutors to help them navigate the language and nuances of American culture. There she met Jill Cohen, a woman who became her tutor and, quickly, a friend. “Being out of work was the first thing that came up when we met. ... I asked her if she knew what a résumé was, and she didn’t,” says Cohen. They got to work, reviewing Bañuelos’ interests and experience. “I see the résumé, and I say, ‘I’m this person? Oh, my God.’ It makes me cry,” says Bañeulos, reflecting on her accomplishments.

The pair marched into The Ritz-Carlton Club with an application, and she was hired.

She now works full-time and her family is doing better; her son is a graduate from the Air Force Academy and continues to serve, and her second son and daughter are both enrolled at Aspen High School. (Cohen actually taught Bañeulos’ daughter to read when she was a teacher in Aspen.) But besides finding employment, the relationship has given Bañeulos a new perspective on the community in which she lives. “For many years, I only come from my house to work, and work to home. Jill is the first person to bring me to the library, and the first person to show me John Denver Sanctuary. I had no idea. There are so many places that are beautiful in Aspen, and I didn’t know before. Now I know many things.”

GIFT OF FAITH IN THE FUTURE
When it comes to startup communities, Brad Feld wrote the book—literally. His book Startup Communities ($26.95, Wiley) was published in 2012, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of his résumé. The longtime venture capitalist from Boulder has created what he calls an “ecosystem” to help foster future entrepreneurs and startups by founding a handful of programs on the national, state and local level. “Every city in the world needs to have a startup community to be healthy in the long term,” he says. “Innovation, new entrepreneurial activity, new people coming into town or staying in town to build their own businesses is key to the longterm health of a city.”

Now a part-time Aspen resident, he’s bringing that vision and savvy to the Western Slope in conjunction with Aspen Entrepreneurs. A $70,000 gift from Feld allowed AE to acquire a permanent space in downtown Aspen, where the nonprofit can host a wide variety of events, programming and provide affordable co-working space for individuals and small startup companies. AE also hosts three-month co-celerator programs for six to eight businesses to provide mentorship, resources and relationships. “There’s a huge gap between having a job here and a career that affords you everything you need to have a life in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. That’s where the need for Aspen Entrepreneurs came from,” says Executive Director Julie Engels. “The new space allows us to bring a new vitality to the community by creating a place for people to work together, share ideas, network and, ultimately, to succeed.” 614 E. Cooper Ave.  

Leah Allen puts the final touches on dessert in the ProStart kitchen; next year she’ll be doing the same thing, but at The Culinary Institute of America.

GIFT OF A CAREER
Leah Allen remembers spending hours in the kitchen, watching her father cook. She’d help—by licking the spoon. “I loved the idea of cooking when I was around 7,” she says. But she didn’t pursue that passion until sophomore year of high school, when the Carbondale resident enrolled in YouthEntity’s pastry program. Her final exam involved baking 1,000 desserts for the community, and she was hooked.

She continued in YouthEntity’s restaurant management and culinary arts program, called ProStart. YouthEntity’s mission is to engage and empower youth for future success by providing real-world learning opportunities, strengthening financial literacy and aiding professional development needs of youth in the valley; careers are part of that, and Allen is a poster child. She graduated from the program with a job at the Ajax Tavern and will start at The Culinary Institute of America next year. 

And Doug Briggs is partially responsible for making that happen. He and his wife, Peggy, believe in ProStart so much that they have been instrumental in the program since its inception, making a significant yearly contribution. “We don’t believe that everyone has to go to college,” he says. “There are lots of noble trades that benefit people without a four-year degree and a large loan to pay back.”

When it came time for Allen to think about her next steps, she naturally started applying to college. “I wouldn’t have considered culinary school without ProStart. And what really made it clear for me was the camaraderie of our class and the way that creating food made me feel present,” she says. “I would be paying for a degree that I’m not passionate about if it weren’t for the guidance of Matt Maier and Executive Director Kirsten McDaniel (ProStart’s instructors).”

And she wouldn’t be on her way to a culinary career. “But I guess I’ve circled back to spending more time in the kitchen with my dad.”

GIFT OF A HOME
Kirstie Ennis joined the Marine Corps at 17. In 2012, during her second tour of duty as an aerial gunner, her helicopter went down over Afghanistan. She has undergone dozens of surgeries since then, including procedures to amputate her left leg first below the knee, and then, above the knee. Since her injury, she has summited Mount Kilimanjaro and taken up snowboarding, hoping to earn a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team for the South Korea games in March.

While traveling this long road, Ennis, 26, who retired from the Marines with the rank of sergeant, has never had a singular place to call home, living out of barracks, tents, hospitals and other temporary accommodations. That changed in September, when she got the keys to a Glenwood Springs home in the Ironbridge subdivision, provided to her mortgage-free by the nonprofit Building Homes for Heroes and multiple community partners.

“It has given me my life back,” said Ennis. “It’s a pretty unreal feeling.” Glenwood Springs is now her home base, giving her a foundation from which she goes about her work helping veterans and others access more of their potential. She has already been to Mount Everest base camp, and she has helped organize and will participate in the first all-female-veteran expedition to the summit of Alaska’s Denali in June.

Thriving in the mountains—whether climbing, snowboarding, hunting or fishing, all pursuits Ennis enjoys—forces anyone to be self-reliant and figure out the means to an end. There is a psychological aspect as well. “It’s just you and your thoughts,” says Ennis. ... “You can truly figure out who you want to be.”

This winter, Ennis said she looks forward to training at Snowmass and racing. She hopes to accumulate enough points to make the Paralympic Team. If not, she’ll set her sights on 2022. “I would love to be able to put on another uniform and represent the United States again,” Ennis says.