Cover Story: Power Up

There is a painting in Kristen Sandquist’s office. Hand-painted from four photographs, it shows her working with children at an orphanage, holding the hands of a young boy, guiding a team up Kilimanjaro and standing triumphantly on top of the summit.

The painting was a gift after summiting Kilimanjaro for the 15th time. (Sandquist has since summited the tallest freestanding mountain in the world a total of 25 times.) “I love it. It symbolizes everything Tanzania for me,” she said of the painting.

As Sandquist tells it, she never set out to trek one of the Seven Summits or start a career as a mountain guide. She was a former teacher and mother with a philanthropic heart. But that was before she met Kevin Cherilla.

In 2009, Cherilla, an international mountain climbing expert, was taking eight blind individuals to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and needed someone to help with fundraising. His goal was to pair each blind person with two sighted people as a team, and all money raised would go to the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix.

Sandquist agreed to help with fundraising, but her role quickly evolved. A woman on the team wasn’t showing up for training hikes and Cherilla asked Sandquist to consider taking her place as a guide. Sandquist had never camped and rarely hiked. She’d never dreamed of using the bathroom outside. Still, she was game and asked how long she had to prepare.

Fifty-two days later, Sandquist and the group landed in Tanzania. The hike was an epic success. Over several days, the team climbed over 19,000 feet of elevation. Every member made it to the summit, four world records were shattered, and they raised more than $400,000 for blind and visually impaired Arizonans.

But the trip was life-changing for another reason. “When we landed in Tanzania, Kevin had set up a meeting for all of us,” Sandquist said. They were delivering Braille writers to a local orphanage that housed 24 blind children and meeting the kids who would benefit from them.

“We walked around this orphanage, and it caught me very off guard,” Sandquist said. “It changed me completely. I fell in love with these kids.”

The historic trip was a jumping-off point for Sandquist. “I came back with a completely different lease on life,” she said. “I got off the plane and said to my husband, ‘I have a new plan. I want to start another nonprofit.’”

At the time, Sandquist had been in the nonprofit world for 17 years. She started her first charity in Wisconsin, called Circle of Friends, as a 23-year-old schoolteacher who noticed that many of her students came to class hungry and tired. What began as a way for students to pick up items in her classroom ballooned into a program in 26 schools within three years. “Circle of Friends is what made me open my eyes to what I really wanted to do with my life,” she said.

After a divorce, Sandquist moved to Arizona with sons Tyler and Cayden. She started Visions of Hope, a nonprofit that supported organizations as a pass-through to give back. Next up was a ladies’ clothing store called Swank. “It was a shop-for-a-cause. Twenty percent of every bit of your sale would go directly to a nonprofit that helped women needing clothing and support,” Sandquist said.

Side note: Kristen Sandquist is fashionable. Like, much more stylish than you might expect from someone who treks mountains for a living. She clearly enjoys fashion and knows what she looks best in.

Outfit change — Sandquist is climbing Piestewa Peak to be photographed for the cover of this magazine. Clad in a velvet blazer, Gucci belt and 3-inch heels, she strikes a power pose while perched atop a boulder.

Grounded, unpretentious, up-for-whatever, it is no wonder people are willing to follow where she leads. “She is laid back and classy, but with a unique grasp of herself and her foundation,” said Scott Foust, who photographed her for this story. “She had to deal with wind, heat and posing on rocks in high heels, but she took it in stride and made it fun. She understands that, in the scheme of things, this is nothing.”

All of which is to say, Sandquist has seen and done things that most folks would deem impossible. So when she decided to start a global nonprofit after her first trip abroad, people paid attention.

Three months after their Tanzania trip, Sandquist and Cherilla opened K2 Adventure Travel, a company that combines international hiking adventures with community-service trips to Africa, Peru, Argentina and Nepal. In tandem with the company, the pair runs K2 Adventures Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to care for children, adults and families with special needs or life-changing medical circumstances. Sandquist is the CEO; Cherilla is president.

Here’s how the two parts of K2 work together. People on K2 Adventure Travel excursions have the option to do service. In Tanzania, for example, that occurs at one of three places: Summit Happy Home, a freestanding orphanage K2 Adventures Foundation built; a prosthetic center where K2 is providing brand-new legs to hundreds of people with below-the-knee amputations; and St. Augustine’s, a school that over 500 children attend, including orphans. “What’s happening is those individuals that came on a for-profit trip will then make a donation to our foundation because they see firsthand what we’ve done with the money,” Sandquist said.

Thanks to supporters, K2 Adventures Foundation is making massive impacts, both domestically and abroad. “It’s pretty magical because it went from being such a small idea to now, where it’s huge,” Sandquist said.

Here in Arizona, the foundation has granted hundreds of thousands of dollars of award requests through its Strength to Thrive program, which focuses on mind, body and soul. For instance, people often come to the organization for adaptive equipment after being denied by insurance companies that deem the items luxury equipment. “If you lose a leg, you’re going to get a new leg. But if you were a runner, they’re not giving you a running blade,” Sandquist said.

As a result, K2 Adventures Foundation has provided running blades; ballet, ski and hiking legs; and adaptive surfboards to clients, as well as adaptive wheelchairs and horse therapy. “Just because you lost your limb doesn’t mean that you have to lose your ability to be in the outdoors, to be an athlete, or to continue on,” Sandquist said.

But K2 Adventures Foundation doesn’t only work with those already familiar with the powerful benefits of exercise and the outdoors. It recently partnered with Elevate Phoenix to provide 10 mentors and 10 mentees an opportunity to work on their mental health, physical health and nutrition. At the end of the free three-month program, participants had the opportunity to hike the Grand Canyon. “It’s one of the best programs we’ve ever created,” Sandquist said. “We watched it transform 20 individuals’ lives in three months. One woman lost 20 pounds and reversed her diabetes; another individual lost 26 pounds.”

Again and again, the team at K2 Adventures Foundation sees the monumental rebooting effects of being in the outdoors. “It refreshes people and helps them start over,” Sandquist said. “It helps clear their mind and gives a sense of peace.”

It’s an effect Sandquist has experienced herself through her years trekking terrain, both external and internal. “I never expected it to change my life. And it did,” she said. “It’s changed me physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Indeed, K2 Adventures Foundation programs are a Trojan horse of sorts, a gift that comes with secret benefits. What people realize — whether they are climbing Camelback Mountain or Machu Picchu — is that they can accomplish much more than they realize. “The training program, fitness and nutrition, teamwork, camaraderie, love and kindness make them more successful than they ever thought they would be,” Sandquist said.

Along with an unwavering belief in the limitless potential of the human spirit, the team at K2 believes in collaboration. After all, teamwork is essential to navigating the challenges posed by a mountain. So, K2 Adventures Foundation partners with nonprofits all over Arizona. “That’s one of the biggest things I pride myself on,” Sandquist said. “We will never compete. We’ll raise our own money and build our own programs. But we will always work with other nonprofits, so if there’s something that they can’t do, we can do it.”

Here is a recent example. Angels on Patrol, a nonprofit started by a former Phoenix police officer, got a call about a woman living on the streets with her dog. Jenny, a former nurse, had lost her legs and fingers from a fungal infection and was using a worn mobility chair. Angels on Patrol reached out to K2 Adventures Foundation, and Sandquist made a couple of phone calls. One was to BHHS Legacy Foundation, which supports K2’s Strength to Strive program.

“What a blessing to help Angels on Patrol get a new electric wheelchair to help improve Jenny’s quality of life,” said BHHS Legacy Foundation CEO Gerald Wissink. “As a CEO, I’m all in on the power of nonprofits teaming up. It’s not just smart strategy — it’s required. When we collaborate, we make a bigger impact, use our resources smarter, come up with fresh ideas, and tackle the tough stuff in our communities.”

Cayden, Tyler, Joseph & Josh

Dedication to teamwork runs like a thread through all of K2 Adventures Foundation’s pursuits. The organization boasts one of the largest boards in Arizona. Between 36 board members, a junior board and an advisory board, it’s comprised of 56 individuals who are part of the K2 crew. “It’s a kind, warm, nurturing environment,” Sandquist said. “When you’re serving individuals with disablities, or mental health issues, or people that have lost something in their life, you have to approach it from a perspective of kindness.”

The care and focus Sandquist applies to her work help explain why she doesn’t task herself with personal brand-building. Married to attorney Jeff Sandquist, she is mother to Cayden, Tyler and stepsons Joseph and Josh and enjoys a fruitful life away from the limelight. “We’re homebodies,” she said. “I work and spend time with my family — that’s it.”

It’s a good bet her family did not predict Sandquist’s transformation from fundraiser to certified NOLS Wilderness First Responder. “It’s my way of making an impression for my family,” she said. “What are my kids and my husband going to say when I die? I would like them to say, ‘She lived her life of service. She was kind, she was giving, and she looked after others.’”

So Sandquist goes about organizing K2 Adventures Foundation’s awards, programs and board meetings, along with fundraising events and finances. All the while, she periodically takes people to the mountaintop, providing tools to trace a personal path to wellness.

Sandquist encourages others to get outside and experience the world. “If you have an opportunity to go to another place, see what kind of magic it brings you,” she said. “Because I truly believe that you come back with a little piece from anywhere you go.”

The painting in her office epitomizes this. It’s a daily reminder of what she’s experienced in Tanzania and a prompt to share those gifts with the world. It’s also a testament to 25 years of nonprofit experience that have taken Sandquist from a classroom in Sheboygan to the peak of Mt. Fuji.

“My life could have gone in many different directions,” she said. “It’s been impactful. It’s been challenging. But, boy, has it been rewarding.”

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About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.
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