The tingling started in Alison Kessler’s feet, almost like they were falling asleep. Then her legs would lose sensation. Then her arms. Before long, Kessler (MBA 2015) was in the intensive care unit.
“It’s really hard feeling like your body is betraying you,” said Kessler, a former Division I college golfer who was only 26 at the time. “You’re trapped. You’re in this hospital with a bunch of people who can’t see anything wrong with you. I was paralyzed from the inside.”
Up until then, Kessler’s life had gone according to plan. She was one quarter away from completing her Professional MBA at Daniels. She loved the job she had held for the last five years at IHS Markit and was engaged to be married.
But while she recovered and rehabbed from Guillain-Barré syndrome—a rare condition in which the body’s immune system attacks itself after an infection—Kessler’s path took a turn.
“The hospital had a great western-facing view,” said Kessler, a Littleton, Colorado, native, “so every day I was working hard and looking at the mountains thinking, ‘God, I hope I get back there one day. But how am I going to get to a place like that if I’m in a wheelchair?’”
For 30 years now, Colorado has had an answer to that question. Situated just over an hour from Denver, near the top of Kenosha Pass, Wilderness on Wheels is an accessible and safe outdoor space for people with disabilities.
For the last two years, Kessler has served as board president, maintaining and improving a space that 1,000 people use each summer for hiking, fishing and camping.
“It’s a really special place,” Kessler said. “It’s this quiet, beautiful, remote mountain experience, and it’s really different than some other adaptive things Colorado has to offer.”
Wilderness on Wheels features an 8-foot-wide, mile-long boardwalk that winds through nature, gradually rising above 9,000 feet. A trout pond with a railing provides a spot for visitors to fish safely. And an array of wheelchair-accessible tents, huts and cabins accommodate overnight stays.
The site is entirely staffed and run by volunteers. After her bout with GBS, Kessler had been looking for an opportunity to give back to her community. Fellow Daniels alumnus Steve Trainer (MBA 2012) put the nonprofit on Kessler’s radar.
“When I was in a wheelchair in rehab, it gave me a different perspective on a group in our community that’s pretty invisible,” said Kessler, who also serves on the Daniels Alumni Advisory Board.
“I saw how not accessible the world is: from curbs to bathrooms to you name it. I had some experiences in a wheelchair or slightly thereafter where I felt invisible or like society forgot about me.”
At Wilderness on Wheels, Kessler feels like she has the chance to change that for others. As a member of the board, which also includes Daniels Executive MBA alumna Dana Johnson (MBA 2001), Kessler is focused on raising the area’s profile and attracting more visitors.
At the same time, she has developed her leadership skills, learned to tiptoe through tricky human resource situations and felt the satisfaction of giving back.
“I definitely feel that was stoked during my time at Daniels. We called it the triple bottom line: positively impacting social, financial and environmental good,” she said. “I really care about an accessible world. I think this is a great way in my local community to help. There’s so much promise and such a great legacy already that the sky is the limit.”
Editor’s note: We reached out to Alison Kessler to inquire about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Wilderness on Wheels. As of March 30, 2020, she said the nonprofit’s facilities are still closed for the season with plans to re-open as usual by Memorial Day, and will adhere to Colorado Parks & Wildlife guidelines to ensure visitors’ safety. She said Wilderness on Wheels can always use volunteer help for things like trail maintenance and campground readiness, and those who are interested can visit wildernessonwheels.org/contact for more information.