Liz Leipold can't read hiking guidebooks or maps that well. If she veers off the main road, she is careful to look behind her and observe her surroundings to avoid getting lost. Then again, Leipold seems most comfortable on the road less traveled, best seen by the way she has chosen to live her life.
Leipold, who turns 50 this summer, is in her second year of full-time occupational therapy work with the Steamboat Springs School District. She also is a ski instructor, a position she has held since she moved to Steamboat with her mother, Betty Leipold, in September 1977.
While both of those jobs consume her Mondays through Saturdays, they are not the only work Leipold does to better the quality of life for adults and children with special needs in Routt and Moffat counties.
Leipold and her dog, Malia, donate time through Heeling Friends, a group of people and pets who visit nursing homes or hospitals several times a month. Leipold gives skiing lessons to Horizons clients on Saturday afternoons and teaches lessons through the Steamboat Ski School on Saturday mornings.
This summer, Leipold will continue her work with the Humble Ranch through its therapeutic camp, which she organized.
Leipold is responsible for the formation of a variety of additional camps and services for people with special needs or disabilities, none more visible than Steamboat's adaptive ski program.
Leipold is a certified adaptive ski instructor through the Professional Ski Instructors of America, or PSIA, and served as its chairperson in the Rocky Mountain region for five years. If skiing has always been Leipold's passion -- she started when she was 7 -- then helping others is her mission. "Liz has that gift of just wanting to help and advocating for other individuals who may not be able to advocate for themselves," said longtime friend and colleague Beverly Lehrer-Brennan. "This is a person who has given a lot to this community."
Raised in Baltimore, Leipold moved to West Virginia to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology in the early 1970s but accepted an offer to teach skiing at Canaan Valley in West Virginia after graduation. When Betty, also an avid volunteer, asked her oldest daughter if she wanted to move to Steamboat in 1977, Leipold, who was 21 at the time, agreed to come along. She had been to Colorado once with a ski club and welcomed the opportunity to return.
"I knew Steamboat had a ski area, and I remember driving out and once we got to Kremmling, I knew we were close," Leipold said. "After every major turn, I was looking for a ski area."
Even when she moved to New Zealand during the winters of 1985 through 1993 to work for the Association of Disabled Skiers or when she moved to Fort Collins at 39 to pursue her master's degree in occupational therapy, Leipold still felt like Steamboat was home.
She returned to the Yampa Valley in 2000 and worked at The Memorial Hospital in Craig until she landed a full-time occupational therapist position with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services in 2002.
Through BOCES, Leipold is working with more than 40 Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary students.
"I absolutely love my job," Leipold said. "My main focus is helping kids become successful in the school environment, no matter what that is."
One of those children is Grayson Steur, 7, a second-grader at Strawberry Park. Both Steur and Leipold have a fascination with the outdoors. "I have a lot of fun with her," Steur said.
Leipold has taught Steur to ski, helped him learn to ride his bike and worked with him at the Humble Ranch. Steur began skiing at 3 and has progressed from Why Not, a winding, green run, to intermediate blue runs. Steur particularly likes Rainbow on powder days and the wooded areas off Morningside. "As parents with a child with special needs, Liz has been a blessing," Janna Steur said. "We appreciate everything she does."
The relationships that Leipold builds with children can last into adulthood. James Clark, 24, moved to Steamboat two years ago because of his affection for the area. When he was younger, Clark would come to Steamboat on family vacations every Christmas, and he would spend the week skiing with Leipold.
"I've had so much fun with Liz," Clark said. "She's fun to work with and has a great smile."
Leipold said her desire to work with people with special needs has its origins in ski instruction. Though the years, Leipold has received numerous letters from the parents of children she taught, as the parents tried to express their happiness and gratitude for allowing them to enjoy vacation activities as a family.
Leipold never started a family of her own because she spent most of her 30s traveling between New Zealand and Colorado. She works with children on a near daily basis and has family nearby.
She has no regrets. "I took different paths and they all seemingly led to the same place," Leipold said. "Life has been a very fun adventure. I feel that I've had so many opportunities to do so many wonderful things and meet so many people. And it's going to continue. I look forward to it continuing."