MIDDLEBURY — Kelly Brush, namesake of the Kelly Brush Foundation, could never have imagined where she would be and how many people she would be helping before the accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down eight years ago.
Brush was a talented sophomore on the Middlebury College ski team, a starter in the giant slalom at the Williams College Winter Carnival. On Feb. 18, 2006, the day of Kelly Brush’s race at Williams, conditions were hard and fast.
Coming over a knoll she ran into an ice patch and was thrown off the trail and into a lift tower stanchion. In addition to sustaining four fractured ribs, a fractured vertebra in her neck and a collapsed lung, she was left paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal fracture.
Brush experienced a difficult first month of recovery. Having always considered herself an athlete first and foremost, a physical injury posed a challenge to how she defined herself. Her turning point occurred in rehab when she first tried using a hand cycle, a bicycle for people with spinal cord injury.
Brush remembers how, at that moment, she was for the first time able to “envision what my life would be like going forward … being able to see that I was still an athlete was huge for me in being able to envision what my life would be like in the future.”
But to begin skiing again, she would need special, and expensive, adaptive sports equipment. While Brush was still in the hospital recovering, her Middlebury Ski Team coach suggested a fundraiser to raise money for a mono-ski, built for athletes like Brush with physical disabilities.
The fundraiser far exceeded its goal of $15,000, raising roughly $65,000. Charlie Brush, Kelly’s father and president of the Kelly Brush Foundation up until last winter, remembers the realization the Brush family came to after that first fundraiser.
“If these 20 ski team members can go raise $65,000, what can we do if we put this out and grow this event?” he recalled.
This was only the beginning of the overwhelming amount of support Kelly Brush and her family would receive.
That support found its outlet in the Kelly Brush Foundation, a foundation created by Brush and her family in 2006 during her time spent recovering in the hospital. The foundation initially focused on ski safety, trying to prevent accidents like Kelly Brush’s, which should not have happened — there was supposed to have been safety fencing up during the race in which she was paralyzed.
The foundation successfully raised awareness, drawing the attention of the U.S. Ski Team. There are now safety plans and inspection processes to prevent unsafe races from being run, although there is still room for improvement.
“It’s still in process,” Charlie Brush said, “but its way better than it was eight years ago when Kelly got hurt.”
During Kelly Brush’s time at the hospital, the family met other newly injured people recovering who didn’t have the support network she did. Other patients in rehab going through the same experience that she was helped to make her aware that others shared her needs, but not her resources.
“Not everybody had people to raise money for them,” she said. “I kept thinking to myself, why am I so fortunate to be able to have this equipment? Why can’t everybody?”
Seeing athletes who might never have the opportunity to get the adaptive equipment that she did, thanks to the fundraising efforts of her ski team, inspired Kelly Brush to help. As a result, in addition to its focus on ski racing safety, the Kelly Brush Foundation awards grants for adaptive sports equipment to individuals with paralysis due to a spinal cord injury.
To these grants and the focus on improving ski-racing safety, the foundation adds a third component — italso supports research to treat and cure paralysis due to traumatic spinal cord injury. The foundation’s mission states its intent to “conquer the challenges of paralysis through love of sport and improve ski racing safety.”
In just the past nine years since the foundation opened its doors, it has raised $1.5 million toward this goal.
Most of this money comes from the Kelly Brush Century Ride, the foundation’s largest event of the year, which is based in Middlebury and brings cyclists and hand cyclists together for Vermont’s largest annual charity bike ride.
The foundation had its first bike ride the year after the first fundraising event for Kelly Brush.Last year the number of cyclists grew by 125, jumping to 750 participants.
Kelly Brush, now a nurse practitioner in addition to her commitment to the Kelly Brush Foundation, said she has been incredibly gratified and even amazed by the foundation’s growth.
“It’s pretty wild to think about where we started and where we’ve grown to,” she said. “I certainly never dreamed that it could be as big as it is.”
Last year’s success allowed the foundation to give away the most grants yet to its largest pool of applicants ever. However the Brushes and the foundation do not plan to stop there.
“It’s been interesting to see where we’re going because, as we raise more money, there’s more that we can do and more that we want to do,” Kelly Brush said.
Future goals include beginning an outreach program to connect with individuals with paralysis due to a spinal cord injury while they’re still in the hospital. The foundation hopes to eventually be in direct contact with these patients, introducing adaptive sports equipment and getting it to those in need more quickly and efficiently.
The foundation has also begun hosting events other than the yearly Century Ride, such as an upcoming reception at the Shelburne Museum on Aug. 20. This reception, the second of its kind hosted by the foundation, acts as a supplement to the yearly Kelly Brush Century Ride. These receptions are intended to raise money while educating people on the mission of the foundation.
The foundation hopes to broaden its community base through these receptions, raising more money to expand its mission and award more grants than is currently possible. Charlie Brush said the growth the foundation aims for will help serve a great need in the adaptive community.
“I call it a responsibility and gift that’s been put in front of us,” he said. “It would be irresponsible to walk away from the opportunity to help so many people, so we’re not going to walk away.”
This year’s ninth annual ride takes place Sept. 6 in Middlebury. To learn more about the Kelly Brush Foundation or to sign up for the Century Ride visit www.kellybrushfoundation.org.