15 years later, Aspen’s Chris Klug continues to make difference for organ donations | AspenTimes.com

15 years later, Aspen’s Chris Klug continues to make difference for organ donations

Chris Klug's story of coming back from a liver transplant to compete in two Olympic games as a snowboarder remains a big inspiration for people facing the critical surgery and worrying about how it will affect their lives.

But Klug wasn't satisfied in simply serving as a feel-good story for transplant recipients. Shortly after receiving a new liver in 2000, the Aspenite created the Chris Klug Foundation, which is dedicated to enlisting people to donate their organs after they die.

Today, the foundation that has signed up thousands of donors and raised millions of dollars will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a party in Aspen. Klug committed to the idea when his health was failing and his fate was unknown.

"At the final stages of the transplant waiting list it was very precarious. I didn't know if I was going to make it through that or not," Klug said Thursday. "I made a promise to God, my family and myself: 'If I get through this I'm going to do everything in my power to give back and help other people going through the same thing.'

"That's really been my commitment to the foundation and the transplant community."

Now 44, Klug was a top-notch athlete who competed in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, when snowboarding was first included in the Games. He finished sixth in the giant slalom.

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He had been diagnosed with a slow-acting liver disease in the early 1990s but it didn't really start affecting him until 2000. He became gravely ill and spent three months on the "critical" list for a liver transplant after working his way up the pecking order for six years.

In July 2000, Klug received the liver of a 13-year-old boy from Idaho who suffered a fatal, accidental gunshot. The boy's family donated other organs, as well.

Klug made a miraculous recovery.

He earned a bronze medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and competed in the 2010 Games in Vancouver. He carried the U.S. flag that was at the World Trade Center into the 2002 opening ceremonies and was the first transplant patient to become an Olympian.

Klug said he thinks of the boy and his family every day and gives thanks.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

To follow up on his promise to promote organ donation, Klug enlisted the help of his sports agent and an accountant in 2002.

"I started with $3,000 out of my pocket 15 years ago," he said. "It's amazing to think where we are 15 years later. I think we've raised over $2 million for organ donation awareness and done thousands of events all over the country. I think we've really positively impacted a lot of lives. I'm really proud of that."

At first he was the only person working the foundation. He would put time in when he could between training, traveling and competing. He hired a part-time executive director a few years later.

Now, the foundation has two full-time employees, executive director Lauren Pierce and programs manager Anna Schwinger, as well as a part-time intern. Klug is chairman of the board of directors. He and the other directors volunteer their time.

The foundation works tirelessly to make people aware of organ donation and to get them to follow up by registering to give. A primary focus is kids in middle and high schools as well as young adults in college.

Chris Klug Foundation volunteers attend events around the country, including Warped Tour stops, Bonnaroo, the X Games and New York City Marathon.

The foundation also developed a Toolkit for Teachers that provides curriculum for educating kids about organ donation.

Education is just half the battle. The trick is getting people to follow through with registration. The foundation has an application where it can sign up people to the national donor registration list at the site.

"We register just over 1,000 people annually," Pierce said.

The foundation's strategy, as explained by Klug, is simple — convince kids and young adults that organ donation is cool. As a professional athlete, he has a hip way of conveying the message.

"You can't take your organs with you. You might as well help somebody else out and recycle yourself," Klug said. "I think that resonates."

The organization estimates it reaches more than 2 million people annually at the events and via social media.

The donor registration rate was stuck at 43 percent in the United States for a long time but has climbed in recent years to 54.1 percent, according to Donate Life America. Colorado has one of the highest state rates at 67.3 percent.

Klug knows the work of the foundation and its partners has helped drive those increases.

"It's hard to move the needle for 300 million-plus Americans," he said, "but I think growing our volunteer base nationwide and using these tools, that's where it's going."

The foundation will keep after the goal of getting 100 percent of people on the donation list. Some states are stuck in the teens as far as donors, but Klug is confident that will change: "We'll get them."

'THE NEED IS GREAT'

There were a record 33,610 organ transplants performed in the United States last year, according to the Department of Health & Human Services, but more than 7,000 people died while waiting.

Currently, there are 116,689 people on the waiting list, and more than 26,000 transplants have occurred in 2017, according to HHS statistics. Kidneys are highest in demand because of diabetes, obesity and other issues.

"Our mission is to promote the life-saving message of organ and tissue donation and help those touched by transplantation but effectively, in layman's terms, it's to eliminate the wait and assure that anyone who needs a transplant can get one," Klug said.

While the foundation's reach is nationwide, its roots are firmly planted in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Its signature event remains the Summit For Life, where participants hike or skin on skis up Aspen Mountain and celebrate at a party at the Sundeck. The 12th annual Summit for Life will be held Dec. 9.

The Roaring Fork Valley has embraced the foundation beyond the Summit for Life by providing funds and volunteers for its efforts.

"You'd be amazed, even in our small community in the Roaring Fork Valley, how many people have been touched by organ donation, both on the recipient side and the donor side. It's incredible," Klug said.

The foundation has honored that support by being "good stewards of every single dollar raised," Klug said. An independent audit showed that 86 percent of raised funds go to programs.

Just as he was eager to get back on a snowboard after receiving his transplant, Klug is determined to assist those in need by encouraging organ donation and helping with recovery for those who receive transplants.

"It's grown from a small organization with three grand to just over a $300,000 annual budget and about 75 events nationwide," Klug said. "We're having a positive impact. The work that we're doing is working, but unfortunately the need is great."

scondon@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO

What: Chris Klug Foundation 15th anniversary and 12th Annual Summit For Life kickoff party

Where: Lulu Lemon Aspen from 4 to 6 p.m. for registration for the Summit For Life followed by cake and brews at Aspen Brewing Co. at 6 p.m.

More info: http://www.chrisklugfoundation.org

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