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"He did it all — if he wasn’t skiing or surfing, he was mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking or trekking in the mountains," said Dan Simon of his son Nick, who died in a car crash in October last year in New Zealand. Nick spent two months in the summer of 2021 solo pedaling the Colorado Trail. (Courtesy the Simon family)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As a Colorado mountain town athlete, Steamboat Springs-born-and-raised Nick Simon did it all — skiing, mountain biking, climbing, kayaking, surfing, hockey, lacrosse, you name it. 

It all came to a screeching halt when, on Oct. 27, the rental camper van he was driving while on a six-week surfing trip with his girlfriend in New Zealand was hit by an oncoming vehicle that had veered into his lane. The collision killed Simon, who was 25, and seriously injured his girlfriend, Brooke Buchanan, who ended up in the Gisborne hospital with a broken nose, face lacerations, bruised internal organs and ribs and other injuries. 

The two had saved their money for the trip (Simon most recently from a commercial fishing stint in Alaska), negotiated for time off work and were on the road trip of their lifetime. Afterward, they planned to move back to Santa Barbara for a couple years before returning to Steamboat, where Simon had already purchased five acres of land, to build a house and raise a family.

While the death sent shock waves through the small mountain community of Steamboat, in the months that followed, Nick’s father, Dan, his mother, Sarah, and his sister, Natalie, decided to keep his legacy by launching the Nick Would Foundation — a donor-advised endowment fund that facilitates outdoor and cultural exploration for people. In its first six months, the fund has grown to nearly $270,000, awarding nearly $25,000 in grants in its first year.  

Foundations like these go a long way toward helping nonprofits in mountain towns like Steamboat and beyond, providing a much-needed source of funding for a variety of causes. 

Wherever accidents and other tragedies claim the lives of cherished locals, more and more loved ones are rallying to generate funding mechanisms to keep their legacies alive. And their grants support an array of causes, from helping people pursue their dreams to preserving the environment and education scholarships.  

“Memorial funds like these are especially common in resort communities like we have in Colorado, where there’s generally more wealth,” said Tim Wohlgenant, executive director of the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, or YVCF, which manages the Nick Would Foundation and many similar funds as part of its mission to connect donors with giving opportunities aligned with their passions and vision.  

There are about 35 community foundations in the state, each serving a different geographic area, and many of them have donor-advised memorial funds similar to the Nick Would Foundation, Wohlgenant said, citing examples in Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties.

“In my experience, there have been a lot of tragedies involved with the people who are setting up these funds, largely because it’s such a difficult thing to go through,” he said. “And mountain towns, by their nature, lend themselves to accidents from people being outside.” 

Nick Simon rowing a raft on Westwater Canyon of the Colorado River in August 2022. (Courtesy the Simon family)

The Yampa Valley Community Foundation holds about 200 funds, Wohlgenant said, with nearly 25 started as some type of memorial fund. These include include the Caroline Mary Lupori Fund, in honor of a 19-year-old resident who died Nov. 3, 2020, skiing in the backcountry near Bozeman, Montana, memorializing her commitment to adventure and learning with the goal of helping others reach their dreams through scholarships and other awards; and the Drew Hyde Memorial Fund, honoring a 49-year-old skier who was killed in an avalanche outside Steamboat on March 19, 2022, awarding grants to environmental causes and recreation annually. 

Birth of the Nick Would Foundation 

In the months after his death, Nick Simon’s parents established an endowment fund to preserve his legacy and honor his love for the outdoors, adventure, arts and music.  

“We thought ‘How do you take the positivity he brought to this world during his life and continue that?’” Dan Simon said. “We decided that those three areas — wildland exploration and preservation, outdoor pursuits and artistic development — were the three things he was most passionate about, so we’re trying to extend that positivity.” 

The concept behind the foundation is more than living large, he added. “Nick gave us all lessons in life that we should take away with us,” Dan said. “As well as a great athlete, he was also a talented musician with a sensitive and caring heart. He’s always been the first to offer a helping hand, supportive conversation or simply let someone know they mattered.” 

The Simon family has a goal of building the fund up to $1 million and that sets it apart from most other funds Wohlgenant deals with. 

“What’s unusual about the Nick Would Foundation is that they raised so much money so quickly,” he said. “With most funds, usually right after someone passes they raise some money but then it tends to wind down; they’re not actually fundraising all the time. This one just keeps growing.” 

Dan said they plan to hold two fundraisers annually — one in California and one in Steamboat. Reaching the $1 million goal will allow the foundation to give away as much as $100,000 a year. 

Nick Simon spent three months hiking in India’s Himalayas with the a NOLS program in 2016. (Courtesy the Simon family)

Grants given so far include $3,500 to Friends of the Yampa to support scholarships for Youth River Camps; $2,500 to Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, joining an additional $15,000 through fundraising efforts; $9,000 to the Steamboat Springs Free Summer Concert Series; $4,000 to California’s Windansea Surf Club/Me Water Foundation, which teaches youth and those with physical disabilities how to surf; and $3,000 to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club to fund athlete participation. Plans in 2024 also include funding a ski video competition for aspiring filmmakers.  

The grants are merit-based and focused around expanding access to outdoor pursuits, wildland exploration and artistic development for those who otherwise might not experience these activities for physical, cognitive or economic reasons.

Wohlgenant added that there’s a difference between an endowment and a donor-advised fund, or DAF. Endowments kick off a set amount each year, which, in the case of the YVCF, is around 4.5% of the fund’s principal (based on a “look-back” at the previous 12 quarters and calculating its return). Donor-advised funds don’t have such restrictions and can grant out as much or as little as they want, as often they want.

“It provides greater flexibility to donors,” he said, adding it doesn’t have to be an endowment fund to treat it like one. “They can give out as much as they like.” 

Wohlgenant said the nonprofits on the receiving end are grateful for the help.  

“Funds like the Nick Would Foundation are essential to small local organizations that are doing good work,” said Lindsay Marlow, executive director of Steamboat’s Friends of the Yampa, which will use its grant to help fund three-day Youth River Camps teaching area youth about the Yampa River. 

“Bringing outdoors to youth and supporting scholarships like ours to increase access are essential to ensure we’re building advocates on the local level,” Marlow said. “The people behind it are keyed in on where the needs are and how to best support the community and the work that’s being done. And these grants are also important because they show there is trust in the organizations doing the work.” 

Funds find home in other mountain towns 

While Steamboat is known for its giving — GoFundMe recently named it the most generous city in the nation, per capita — it’s certainly not alone on its philanthropy pedestal. Other mountain towns in Colorado — which ranked third in the country in GoFundMe’s giving report — are also hot on the memorial movement.  

“They’re filled with generous people who genuinely love and want to help protect the outdoors and help other people,” Wohlgenant said.

Nick Simon hucking a backflip at Steamboat in 2014. (Courtesy the Simon family)

With 35 community funds in the state, each harboring dozens of DAFs and endowment funds, the list is exhaustive, and a key cog in helping area nonprofits. Named after Anna Lynn Cunningham, who lost her three-year battle with Ewing sarcoma in 2019 at age 16, Carbondale’s ALC Foundation honors her bravery, positivity and ever-present smile by offering support to children and their families faced with the diagnosis of pediatric cancer. 

Beneficiaries in 2022 included the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which received a $10,000 grant for pediatric cancer research in memory of Martha Riedel; Camp Wapiyapi, serving kids affected by cancer, which received $15,000; Local Families Fighting Cancer, which also received $15,000; and Hope Lives Here, a safe space for kids and families affected by cancer that received a $30,000 grant. Among the fundraisers for the ALC Foundation are a bidding contest for a 2017 Airstream, a live benefit concert at Carbondale’s River Valley Ranch featuring Dark Star Orchestra, and an annual golf tournament.   

In Crested Butte, the Paden Castles Kelley Memorial Scholarship Fund was founded in memory of a former football player for the University of Texas who died of cancer in 2019. Set up by his family, it carries on his passion of teaching skiing to Gunnison Valley children by funding area youth who wish to participate in Crested Butte’s programs introducing kids to skiing and snowboarding — especially to those who couldn’t otherwise afford enrollment. 

“It’s an endowment fund totaling over $35,000 that has played a big role in helping as many as 10 youth so far access snowsports programs over the past several years,” said Erica Rasmussen, executive director of the Crested Butte Snowsports Foundation, which manages Paden’s Fund. “It’s very important to both CBSF as well as our small mountain community. We’re a rural community and this fund helps us provide more kids the opportunity to experience snowsports, which enriches their lives. The scholarships we award through it help us expand accessibility and inclusiveness to snowsports.” 

It’s something Nick Simon— a former Alpine racer later known for throwing double backflips in big mountain competitions — would have funded in a heartbeat as well.   

“Nick never missed an opportunity to be out in nature enjoying everything it had to offer, and he loved getting others out there as well,” said Dan Simon, touting everything from his son’s National Outdoor Leadership School trip in the Himalayas to his solo bike-packing trip on the Continental Divide Trail. “He did it all — if he wasn’t skiing or surfing, he was mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking or trekking in the mountains. And he was also a highly gifted musician and songwriter, so that’s a big component of the fund’s grants as well. He inspired countless people in his short life and this is the best way we can think of to keep that moving forward.”

Eugene Buchanan is an award-winning author, speaker, editor and reporter based in Steamboat Springs with more than 30 years of experience in the newspaper and magazine industry.
Email: Twitter: @paddlinglife