Patient and volunteer Melissa Simpson achieves her dream with the help of her Freedom Chair.
Mountains can symbolize many things. To some, they evoke awe and power. Others see them as a way to experience a bird’s eye view or a place for recreation. For Howard Head Sports Medicine (HHSM) volunteer Melissa Simpson, the mountains she gazed at every day from her bedroom window symbolized her freedom.
Growing up in Leadville, Colorado, the highest elevation city in the United States, Melissa is more than familiar with both the beauty and challenges of living in a small mountain town. However, those challenges are amplified for her. Born with cerebral palsy, she navigates life from a wheelchair.
“What’s within you is stronger than what’s in the way.” Melissa lives by the No Barriers motto every day. Everyone who meets her quickly learns that no obstacle can stop her from pursuing her goals and dreams — even if it’s a 13,000-foot peak.
Climbing Mountains, and Moving Them
Although Melissa has always embodied a fighting spirit, a spark ignited inside her when No Barriers co-founder, Erik Weihenmeyer shared his inspiring story at her Colorado Mountain College graduation. The two became close friends. After hearing about Erik’s many outdoor achievements, including climbing Mount Everest despite his blindness, Melissa wanted to embark on her own adventure: summiting a mountain.
Vail Health Foundation and HHSM believe everyone deserves a space in the outdoors. To support Melissa’s dream and make future outdoor activities possible for her, the foundation, together with Challenged Athletes Foundation, funded a specialized wheelchair called the “Freedom Chair.” The lever-driven wheelchair allows her to move safely through rugged, off-road terrain and, ultimately, removes the barrier of accessibility with a normal wheelchair.
A dynamic team came together to help plan the climb and support Melissa throughout the journey. On September 29, 2020, Melissa and her team accomplished her monumental goal of hiking six miles and 2,500 vertical feet to the summit of Columbine peak, or as her team called it, “Mount Melissa.”
“That was my day. That was my team’s day. And we made it. We had three blind people and a veteran that had gotten blown up in Iraq,” describes Melissa. “I was tired, I was exhausted, but I knew the mountain was waiting for me. It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Melissa is grateful to Vail Health Foundation’s generous benefactors for helping make her dream come true.
Giving Back Through Volunteering
In 2013, Melissa experienced various health issues and was a patient at Vail Health. “When I heard about the Volunteer Corps, I thought it was a great way to give back to this hospital that had given me so much good care when I was very sick,” she says.
Initially, Melissa volunteered at Vail Health’s patient care unit, but as her passion for sports medicine grew, she began volunteering once a week at HHSM. “I really enjoy the patient interaction. The staff is one of a kind; everyone feels like family to me. I feel very grateful.” Melissa says assisting HHSM staff and patients gives her purpose in life.
Melissa is looking forward to where her Freedom Chair will take her next — she’s hoping to go fishing soon, one of her favorite hobbies when she was younger. Another goal is returning to school to pursue a career in nutrition or performance coaching. “This is just the beginning of my story. I just know the best is yet to come.”
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“Thank you to Vail Health Foundation for making a big part of my dream come true. I wouldn’t be able to do this without my Freedom Chair.”Melissa Simpson