Village Talk

Limbs for Liberty

Two locals create a nonprofit providing prosthetic limbs to Ukrainians.

By Devon O'Neil November 28, 2022 Published in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

Kelli Rohrig (right) visits with wounded veterans of the Ukranian conflict.

In September, Kelli Rohrig, 52, a local landscaper and avalanche educator who has lived in the Vail Valley for most of her life, was on her third trip of the year to Ukraine. She spent much of those 10 autumn days driving around in a van with fellow volunteers, delivering supplies to people in need while compiling a list of amputees she might be able to help later. It had been three months since she and Tyler Schmidt, a former Green Beret and emergency nurse practitioner who lives in Avon, founded Limbs for Liberty, a nonprofit ( whose mission is to provide prosthetic limbs to victims of the war. Both locals had made their first trip to the country in March, soon after the Russian invasion. But they wouldn’t meet for months.

Rohrig had initially traveled to Ukraine on her own with eight duffel bags containing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of medical supplies—mostly expired (but still effective) drugs like epinephrine or lidocaine that she had solicited from sources including Vail Health and local firehouses. “I’ve always been super fascinated by people who put their lives on the line to help others,” she says. “So when the war started, I just figured, this is the time that you go and help the people. And that’s what I did.”

She didn’t know a single Ukrainian when she left Colorado. But she befriended two men on the Polish border who had similar intentions—one British, one American—then met a young woman who was driving a decommissioned ambulance into and out of Lviv. They joined the woman on her journey, doling out supplies along the way. Meanwhile, Schmidt, a 58-year-old combat veteran who’d served in Iraq, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, and much of western Europe, teamed up with a fellow ex-Green Beret and planned his own trip. “Seeing the atrocities going on, we were like, ‘Let’s go over there and figure it out,’” Schmidt says.

During their visit, Schmidt and his friend trained Ukrainian Special Forces near the front and delivered all kinds of supplies, including coloring books to kids. The last week he was there, Schmidt says, “I had this really bizarre dream about doing something for amputees, helping them out.”

Limbs for Liberty hopes to fly Alex Fedun (second from right), a 23-year-old double amputee, to the United States to be fitted with prostheses.

Image: Kelli Rohrig

Upon his return, a woman in Boulder who was trying to get Americans to adopt and bring home cats from Ukraine connected him and Rohrig. Serendipitously, Rohrig realized she had attended high school with Schmidt’s younger brother (the Schmidt family has lived in the valley since 1982). It took a while to hone the concept and plan—during which time Rohrig made a second trip in May, delivering supplies with a Mormon from Utah who runs a nonprofit called Backroads Foundation—but eventually, they founded Limbs for Liberty in June.

Schmidt learned about prosthetic limbs from a couple of friends who were amputees from injuries suffered in combat. He and Rohrig connected with a pair of doctors—one in Minnesota, another in Florida—who specialize in prosthetics and were eager to help. All the while they’ve worked to expand their network in Ukraine, both to find patients as well as to arrange logistical support. “We’re trying to take the complicated cases because Ukraine more or less can handle the below-the-knee amputees,” Rohrig says.

The future is both promising and daunting. It took months to obtain tax-exempt status, but Schmidt hopes that will create a pipeline for corporate donations. Up to now, they have covered all their own expenses while trying to facilitate financial support for Ukrainian patients, including travel, lodging, and food while they are in the United States getting new limbs. Costs can quickly approach six digits for a complex prosthetic. But with each new approval by their medical partners comes hope—and momentum.
“The people we’re helping are some of the most positive people I’ve ever been around,” Rohrig says.  —D.O.

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