Breaking Barriers: Walnut Cove Couple Spearhead Annual Event to Benefit Veterans

 In September 2022, The Cliffs at Walnut Cove members Pete and Marlene Champagne played host to Erik Weihenmayer, who, in 2001, became the first blind person to summit Mount Everest. At The Cliffs, he shared his vision of determination during Walnut Cove’s gala and golf benefit for Weihenmayer’s No Barriers USA and its No Barriers Warriors program.

The annual occasion, which started two days before Weihenmayer’s 54th birthday and ran from Sept. 25-27, brought more than 100 participants to “Conquer Your Everest.” “We all have Everests in our lives,” Pete says, “There are barriers that we face, and No Barriers can give you a process to break through those barriers so that you can become your best self.”

Pete, a retired Army colonel and former Army Ranger, became chairman of Walnut Cove’s No Barriers fundraisers in 2016. Marlene, a retired Army major, serves as the national nonprofit’s Tri State Development Manager in Asheville, where she started last year as the first veteran in the part-time paid position.

Their combined military service explains why proceeds from the Walnut Cove festivities benefit No Barriers. The Colorado-based organization provides outdoor programs for veterans and non-veterans alike in the Rockies and Appalachian Mountains. The seven- day experiences, designed to heal those wounded inside and out, include whitewater rafting, rock climbing, backpacking and rope teams.

“Marlene and Pete have been such an important part of our Rope Team down at Walnut Cove,” Weihenmayer wrote from Ecuador, where he was helping a paraplegic friend summit Mount Cotopaxi. 

Like that active volcano in South America, Walnut Cove’s annual No Barriers fundraiser has exploded, raising $1.89 million in seven years, Pete says. The  Champagnes,  who  married  in 1999 and moved to The Cliffs in 2014, say that, more than money, the support the  organization  provides  is  priceless — even lifesaving. Marlene tells about an Expedition veteran who persuaded a fellow vet to participate. “She thanked him for calling because she told him that she planned to kill herself — actually the very day he reached out to her,” Marlene says. “Fortunately, she joined the Expedition. She completed it successfully, and so that was a huge success story.”

That year, that same woman attended the celebratory dinner capping the three- day festivities. The 2022 keynote speaker is former Staff Sgt. Johnny “Joey” Jones, a Marine who lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

“It just reminds you that at some point in time,” Pete says, “they raised their right hand and wrote a blank check to the United States of America — including his life, his last breath — for freedom.”

In a word, the Champagnes say their work on behalf of No Barriers reflects what so many of these wounded warriors do themselves. “What I love about the program,” Marlene says, “is that it’s about solutions, it’s not about putting a Band-Aid on a symptom. We’re going right to the cause and getting to a solution so that we can help these veterans to heal, and then they can, in turn, go forth and pay it back.” Weihenmayer salutes Walnut Cove’s contributions, too. As his text from the Southern Hemisphere says: “The community has been tremendous, and it’s enabled us to grow our programs and help more veterans and folks with various challenges.”

This story was featured in Cliffs Living Magazine. To read more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here.

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