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From Traumatic Crash, Kelly Brush Davisson Created New Opportunities Through Her Foundation

By Karen Price | Jan. 18, 2021, 1:23 a.m. (ET)

Kelly Brush was just a sophomore at Middlebury College when a skiing accident changed her life forever.

Nearly 15 years later, the Kelly Brush Foundation continues to help change the lives of others who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries for the better.

“Its just nice to know that, especially with the spinal cord injury community, having an injury can be so disheartening for so many reasons,” said Brush, now Kelly Brush Davisson. “To provide hope and excitement for people and show them how great life can still be is really rewarding. To see not only that but also to see people thrive and do wonderful things and have a wonderful life is great for me. I’m just so happy we’re able to support people in that way.”

A member of the Middlebury ski team, Davisson was competing in an NCAA race when she caught an edge, careened off the course and crashed into a ski lift stanchion. She damaged her spinal cord, broke four ribs and a vertebra in her neck and had a collapsed lung. 

After 10 hours of surgery and two weeks in the hospital, she was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver, a renowned rehabilitation center, where she’d spend the next two and a half months.

Almost immediately, Davisson said, she knew she wanted to ski again.

“I loved skiing,” she said. “It was my favorite sport from when I was a young kid and my family all did it. Ski racing was in my blood, My mom was an Olympic ski racer (Mary Seaton Brush, Innsbruck, 1976) and my dad was a collegiate ski racer, as was my sister. After I got hurt I said I want to get up on the hill and be able to ski with my family and friends again.”

Davisson didn’t know much about mono skiing, but she had an excellent person to introduce her to the sport. Sarah Will, the most decorated athlete in U.S. Paralympic ski team history and a member of the Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame, was a friend of a friend and she came to visit Brush at Craig. Later, Will took her to the mountains and the two skied together.

“She was really a good motivator because I could emulate her and see what she was doing and try to copy it,” Davisson said. “But after that I did it all wrong. I just bought a mono ski and went up to the mountains and tried to learn how to ski with (husband Zeke Davisson, who was also a member of the Middlebury ski team) tethering me. It was a terrible idea and not how I’d recommend learning.”

After a couple of years of muddling through, Davisson credits time on the hill with another legend of Para skiing and Middlebury ski team alumnus, Chris Waddell, for helping hone her skills.

“Probably after that time with Chris, yes, I started doing a lot better and started to feel more confident, like I could do a lot more,” she said. “But it certainly took two or three years before I felt like I could ski a lot of different terrain.”

Skiing wasn’t all Davisson knew she wanted to do while still recovering from her injury in the hospital.

She and her family wanted something good to come out of what happened. They wanted not only to do all they could to make sure other racers could safely participate in the sport but also help others who were injured and didn’t have the support network she did.

Today, Kelly Davisson is a pediatric nurse practitioner in their home state of Vermont as well as the president of the foundation’s board of directors; Zeke Davisson is the executive director. While their work still includes a safety component — such as helping to purchase netting, padding and bleeding control kits and training coaches and volunteers in safety measures — much of the growth in the past five years has been in the adaptive sports component.

The Active Fund now has two grant cycles per year, and this past fall they had a record $720,000 in grant requests. Of the 130 applications received, they were able to award 110 grants in the amount of $360,000. In total, they’ve helped over 900 people from 48 states purchase mono skis, handcycles, racing chairs, hockey sleds and more.

The grants are specifically for individuals with paralysis caused by spinal injury, and applicants must demonstrate financial need, provide a personal recommendation and an explanation of what equipment the applicant wants and why. The Path2Active program is an extension of the fund, Zeke Davisson said, and helps identify those who would benefit from the grants by joining in with trusted partners in the adaptive sports community.

“The premise behind the Active Fund is that for a lot of people who learn about adaptive sports, maybe they go to a program and learn how to do the sport but then the cost of doing it becomes prohibitive,” he said. “We realized we could make better decisions if we involved those programs they started with and have our trusted partners who know who wants to do this on their own but they’re hitting financial barriers. The intent is to engage the boots on the ground people working with members of the spinal cord injury community who are applying to us, and it makes the process faster for applicants.”

Like everyone, the Davisson family has had to make adjustments both in their personal and work lives since the pandemic started. Their second-biggest fundraiser of the year was scheduled for March 26 in Boston, and that was canceled. Everyone started working from home, and Kelly Davisson said right now they’re really missing the ability to put their older daughter in ski school and their younger daughter in day care on the mountain and enjoy some time on the slopes. 

Fortunately, Zeke Davisson said, their donors and the community stepped up this year. He believes that because of COVID-19 those who haven’t suffered from spinal cord injuries now have an idea of what the isolation can feel like and how important it is to be outdoors and active.

“(A spinal cord injury) makes people feel so alone and so helpless but so many of us know how meaningful sports are,” he said. “To see it be able to combat feelings of isolation and build community, it’s not just sports for the sake of sports, it’s sports for the sake of all the intangibles you can get from it, from the community you build to the identity to the emotional and mental well-being.”

Karen Price

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpine.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.