Aspen’s Summit For Life inspires people to help Chris Klug Foundation | AspenTimes.com

Aspen’s Summit For Life inspires people to help Chris Klug Foundation

When the Chris Klug Foundation's Summit for Life teamed up with the Storm the Stars uphill fundraising event in 2005, it attracted about 150 people and raised $30,000 that was split with the American Transplant Association in Denver.

Klug, an Aspen native and liver-transplant recipient, said it is truly rewarding that Summit for Life has become so popular over the past 10 years and raised so much to help his foundation carry out its mission.

The event typically sells out, with close to 500 people making the grueling journey up Aspen Mountain at night. This year's event will be Saturday, with a recreational start at 5 p.m. and competitive start at 6 p.m.

Racers will climb 3,267 vertical feet over about 21/2 miles. There will be a post-race lasagna dinner and party at the Sundeck. Other donors can participate in the Ride for Life, where they ride the Silver Queen Gondola to the summit of the mountain.

Klug, an Olympic medalist in snowboarding, will be the host for the event at the base of Little Nell. When the competitive race begins, he will drop the mic and then "turn and burn" up the mountain, he said.

Last year's event raised $200,000 for the Chris Klug Foundation. A similar amount is expected this year. First and foremost, the event is a celebration of life and an awareness-builder for organ donations, Klug said. But it's also the signature fundraising event for the foundation. Klug started the foundation in 2003 with $3,000 out of his own pocket.

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This year, one of the youngest participants raised about $3,000 on her own. Lilly Justice, 11, of Snowmass Village met Klug last year and was inspired by his story. She wanted to help with awareness of organ transplants.

Lilly trained last summer by hiking up Aspen Mountain and some trails in Snowmass. She said she's pretty confident she will make it up Aspen Mountain on Saturday on stabilizers that her mom bought for her at Ute Mountaineer. She also will have the support of a team that includes her sister, Taylor, and Mick Ireland, among others.

Lilly has been focused recently on fundraising. The fifth-grader at Aspen Elementary School raised $157 alone by selling special bracelets from Guatemala to her schoolmates. She's also written hundreds of letters and posted information on Facebook about her efforts.

"As of now, this little girl is the No. 1 fundraiser for this event," her mom, Whitney Parsons Justice, wrote in an email.

Lilly said she hopes to meet Klug again Saturday.

The Summit for Life is vital for raising money for Donor Dudes, a primary program the foundation uses to educate high school and college students about the need for organ and tissue donation and how they can help. For that initiative, the foundation created the "Know the Facts, Share Your Decision" video and education tool kit for teachers' use in classrooms. The video features stories from transplant recipients and donor families.

Klug and his team aim to place the video and program in every physical education and health class in the country. Since November 2011, they have distributed 3,147 videos in all 50 states and some other countries. The program is taught to every student in driver's education classes in Colorado and Wyoming.

Klug said the event probably couldn't grow larger due to the capacity of the Sundeck. The mission, however, remains as critical as ever. There are more than 123,000 people currently on waiting lists for organ transplants across the U.S.

"(The Chris Klug Foundation) is devoted to making a difference to those waiting for a second chance and is working to help promote the message of organ donation," according to the foundation's Facebook page.

The dedication of the supporters will be evident Saturday night. Aspen residents provide tremendous support to the event, Klug said. About 25 percent of the participants are from out of the area. In addition, 20 of the participants are recipients of organs.

"The transplant community will be well-represented," Klug said.

The foundation will take the opportunity to present two people with its second annual Bounce Back Award, given to two transplant recipients who exhibit a great quality of life. The winners are Edward Drake of Columbus, Ohio, and Lea Sobieraski of Lockport, New York.

While he was waiting for a kidney transplant, Drake started a foundation dedicated to raising awareness and educating youth on healthy living habits. Youth Needing Organ and Tissue Transplants also assists young transplant recipients emotionally and financially.

Sobieraski was diagnosed with Wilson's disease at age 20. The college basketball player's health deteriorated so quickly that she was moved to the front of a list for a liver transplant just four months later. After the transplant, she re-enrolled in college and continues to play basketball.

Drake and Sobieraski will be presented with their awards at the Sundeck on Saturday evening.

scondon@aspentimes.com