BAXTER — She was the 18-year-old who fell 70-feet from a towering white pine and survived.
That could have been the end of the story for the Baxter teenager — one of survival after a climbing mishap, of first responders, family devotion and community connections.
But it wasn’t.
Emilee Struss didn’t just recover from her injuries. She thrived. She pursued college goals and, after a delayed start, found her niche. Now 20 and two-years removed from the fall, she is still climbing, both literally and figuratively. She found her college family at a climbing rock wall in Mankato. And through her experience on a mission trip to Peru, she saw firsthand the effects of poverty and violence on a community. And found hope in what it could mean to others to have even small joys in the midst of turmoil and tragedy.
“Just being able to encourage them was huge,” Emilee said. “That was my first real experience with poverty and I knew it was going to be a lot different from watching it on TV ... being dropped down into it.”
She stayed with a missionary family in Peru in the middle of the Amazon, in a town accessible only by plane or boat. Residents struggle with drugs and poverty.
That three-week trip solidified a feeling she said was in her heart long before — a desire to travel, write and help others. This February, Emilee will be leaving for a three-month mission trip to South Africa.
In August of 2011, such an endeavor might have seemed impossible. Summer was drawing to a close. College was on the horizon. An experienced climber, Emilee was looking forward to the challenge of free climbing a massive white pine in dense forest. Trouble hit on the descent. A branch snapped. Emilee ricocheted off thick branches in a fall to the forest floor. She suffered a concussion, six broken ribs and punctured lungs, a lacerated liver and a fracture from her mid-back all the way down to her tailbone and a fractured pelvis.
Her mother Jayne Struss remembered the initial reaction of physicians that Emilee wouldn’t be able to have the same physically active lifestyle. But in the days, months and now years since the accident, Emilee was able to return to what she loves doing. Her college plans were delayed by her recovery. She entered college a semester later than planned. She found a creative writing major at Mankato State University and is pursuing a nonprofit minor. But college life really seemed to bloom when an indoor rock climbing wall was constructed. Emilee’s skills were apparent and she became a high-ropes course instructor working 35-40 feet in the air.
“It totally sounds like what I should not be doing but I love it,” Emilee said.
She climbs five to six times a week and works with student groups and office groups who are working on team building, including community leadership groups. She built up her strength, running and completing triathlons.
Emilee knew she wanted to travel abroad. The trip to Peru confirmed her goal but she wasn’t sure where to go next or how to make it happen. She planned to travel for the second semester of her college year but stressed with a full course load along with work, Emilee was starting to wonder if her plan was going to work.
“I was like I can’t deal with this right now and I prayed to God,” Emilee said.
When she was picking up shoes for her trip to Peru, the first person who helped her at the store also had a history of mission trips and began telling Emilee about South Africa, where communities are dealing with poverty, violence and AIDS.
“She told me about this organization in East London, South Africa called Catch Projects,” Emilee said. “It’s an organization that is in a very underdeveloped area of South Africa. There is a lot of poverty, violence and AIDS right now.”
Catch is going into the area focusing on youth to build a foundation with schools, orphanages, AIDS support groups, clinics, Emilee said. The woman helped Emilee make the connections with Catch Projects.
“And then she called home and said, ‘Mom I met a lady in a shoe store and now I’m going to South Africa,’” her mom said and laughed.
The work with the nonprofit also fits in Emilee’s college degree and will serve as her internship. She plans to leave Feb. 8 for South Africa and work with the people living in the village of Mzamomhle. She’ll be able to shadow the nonprofit director and document personal stories of residents while helping with classes in writing and English.
“Missionary work just felt right,” Emilee said. “... I’m really excited for it. I don’t have any concerns or worries. God is really giving me a peace about it.”
Emilee is fundraising to help pay for the $4,500 cost for the trip. Thursday, Dec. 19, with the help of her sister Anna and Giovanni’s restaurant in Brainerd, Emilee is delivering spaghetti lunches to area businesses as a fundraiser. She is keeping a blog of her efforts at emmylou002.blogspot.com and is raising funds through the website of her church in North Mankato at http://newcreationwoc.org/give/missions.html.
“We’re very proud of her and how she touches lives in such a gentle way,” Jayne Struss said of her daughter.
As for the mission work, it can be daunting to think of making a dent in such big issues as poverty, prostitution and abandoned children.
“If we can just reach one person it’s totally worth it all to me,” Emilee said. “Jesus tells us the need is always going to be there but we can change the lives that we meet.”