Founder of the Vail Veterans Program to be inducted into Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame
Cheryl Jensen to be honored for her life changing programs for the military injured
If Cheryl Jensen had told her younger self that one day she would start a nonprofit veterans service organization that would change the lives of thousands of wounded veterans and receive awards from the Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Staff of the Army, she never would have believed it.
“I had no idea I’d be doing this, but I also believe life takes us in different directions for reasons and that produces certain outcomes,” Jensen said. Jensen will be inducted into the Colorado Snowsports Museums’ Hall of Fame on Sunday at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail.
Jensen founded the Vail Veterans Program in 2004 which introduces severely injured veterans and their families to therapeutic outdoor sports. The Vail Veterans Program started as an adaptive winter ski program for a small group of wounded warriors and grew to host a variety of programs serving nearly 3,500 injured military service members and raising over $22 million in support of this vital mission.
Jensen learned how to give back early in life. When she was 21, she volunteered at a camp for kids with cancer. Even without any formal training, she realized that she was needed and able to help and have an impact on their lives.
“Once you get that feeling you always look for ways in which to help people and when that can happen to people at a young age, it plants a seed in their heart where they realize that we all have, no matter what our training is or what we do, we all have an opportunity to change a person’s life and if you change one life, it’s worth all the effort, if you change many along the way, it’s even better,” Jensen said.
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The idea of Vail Veterans Program was sparked because of another nonprofit Jensen started, Sharing Warmth Around the Globe, in 2000. It repurposed ski uniforms that were no longer being used by donating them to people in much-needed areas of the world.
“So here I was in Washington, D.C. peddling my coats to the Department of Defense to ship them to faraway places, and that trip spawned the idea for the Vail Veterans Program. If that relationship between that woman at the Pentagon and I had never occurred, none of this would have happened. I didn’t even know what the Walter Reed Medical Center was, and she said, ‘oh, I just got back from Walter Reed,’ and I asked, ‘what’s that?’ and then she shared with me, and then I met Dave Rozelle,” Jensen said.
Retired Army Colonel David Rozelle was one of the program’s first wounded warriors and he was brought to the valley to speak at a conference that Jensen and her husband, Bill, attended.
“I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m meeting you because I was just at the Pentagon and I met this woman and I told her my idea to bring wounded veterans to Vail to take part in the adaptive ski and snowboard program and you’re a wounded warrior’ and he said, ‘you raise the money and organize it and I’ll get you the wounded soldiers’ and that was it,” Jensen said.
Rozelle made good on his promise to connect Jensen to the wounded warriors and brought her to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
“I met Chris Fesmire at Walter Reed in his hospital bed. I had walked in and he’s lying there with this beautiful, young wife next to him and I could tell he had no legs and I just introduced myself and told him about the adaptive ski program we were putting together and handed him a trail map of Vail. I left his room and went into the bathroom and just sobbed and sobbed,” Jensen said.
“Then, I told myself that I needed to pull it together and about 15 minutes later I walked by his room and he was sitting there looking at the trail map and three months later he was in Vail and then he ended up moving to Colorado,” Jensen said. “Chris Fesmire is the Lieutenant Dan character from “Forrest Gump.” Angry at the world, trying to just get up every day to survive and he’s told us that without the Vail Veterans Program, he’d be dead in the gutter. He said we saved his life.”
That was in 2005. Jensen never thought the organization would grow to not only provide military injured with adaptive ski and snowboard lessons on Vail Mountain but also grow programs that brought along their families and add summer programming that included outdoor recreation like fly fishing, horseback riding and golfing, and then have a program for the caregivers.
“I was so naïve, I just thought the war was going to end and we wouldn’t need this. I think that was something I took away from this, that part of me thinks we’re so disconnected from the military, living in these places that we live in, and I read the news, but do I really know what our military men and women are doing all the time? We have no idea the suffering that is taking place,” Jensen said.
The Vail Veterans Program will be celebrating its 20th anniversary during the 2023-2024 ski season.
“Through almost 20 years, the one thing that I think about most is this community and that includes our donors who don’t even live here but are a part of our Vail Veterans Program family. Without that support over time, we never, ever could have done what we’ve done past today and into the future. This community really embraced the mission of this organization to a level that allowed us to grow in meaningful ways that had impacts on thousands of people,” Jensen said.
“That impact we’ve had on entire families I am in awe of, but it really goes back to our supporters. You can never say thank you enough, ever.”