A difficult childhood can break a person, but Chelise Foster came through tough times with a positive attitude and a commitment to help others.

Foster, 32, has made a name for herself through giving back to the community. She originated the Waldo Waldo 5K race, which raised funds to help restore Waldo Canyon after the devastating 2012 wildfire. In seven years, the event generated more than $200,000. Her work earned a nomination as a finalist for a 2018 Mayor’s Young Leader award.

A Colorado Springs native, Foster and her older sister were caught in the middle of a bitter custody battle. In the midst of turmoil, Foster managed to earn her GED and started working full time when she was 16. Her early jobs included working at restaurants, serving as a dental assistant and as a member service coordinator at Ent Credit Union.

She said her family, especially her sister and her childhood sweetheart, Jeff, whom she married in 2010, along with many mentors and organizations in the community, got her through the difficult times. Her husband is her partner in her part-time business, Chelise Foster Photography, and in raising their two children. She credits him with “really encouraging me to push myself and find ways to be more involved in the community.”

Foster spoke with the Business Journal about her journey and what she’s doing now that the Waldo Waldo race has ended.

How did your childhood affect your life?

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My childhood was a little difficult. But I consider my childhood to be, even if it was hard, something that gave me the ability to have more empathy and to see outside of my own perspective. I feel like that gave me the fire in my gut that I wanted to do more than just what I was doing.

How did you become interested in photography?

I’ve always been interested in photography. I took some photography classes in high school. My aunt was also a photographer, and she gave me all of her old equipment. I always kind of modeled after her. My husband is also a photographer. We love doing portraits and making families feel special. So we took our passion after lots of people told us that we should do this professionally, and we decided six or seven years ago that we would open up a little business and do it on the side.

So I did my photography business when I was working at Ent and then when I had my first child, I was a stay-at-home mom, but I worked at Elope, a local [costume and accessory producer] here in town. They really believe in trying to encourage you to follow your dream and do the things that make you happy and find joy. They also encouraged me to find my voice and … that my voice does matter. So working at Elope definitely gave me the platform that I needed to find things I was really interested in, and that included Waldo.

Talk about how Waldo came about.

My family and I went hiking in Waldo Canyon a couple months before the fire came. It was a near and dear place for all of us. I thought, why not just do a flash mob in Waldo Canyon of 20, 30, 50 people dressed as Waldo, cleaning up the trail, so if you happen to go hiking that day, you’ll see a Waldo hiding behind a tree waving at you. I had costumes from Elope, so that’s originally where the idea came from. Two months later, the fire came through. Most of the people that I worked with were evacuated. My husband’s boss, his house was burnt down, and it felt like I saw all these people around me being impacted so negatively. It was such a hard time, and no matter where you were in the city, you were impacted. And I thought, we can’t do a flash mob, but we can do a 5K, because people in Colorado Springs love running, and try to raise some money to restore the area.

So I had six weeks after everything settled down to put the event on. My sister, my husband and I and Randi [Hitchcock] with UpaDowna, we all kind of came together and made the event happen the first year. We put the kids to sleep, and we’d work from seven to midnight almost every night. We thought we’d maybe only have 200 people come to the event, … and we ended up having 1,000 people the first year. And then we continued to put on an awesome event and bring something that was lighthearted for people that had such a stressful time. That’s what we feel like Waldo was. Every year, we got such huge feedback and such happy people that we decided to keep doing it. Waldo ended because we no longer had access to the licensed costumes, so it didn’t really make sense for the licensed part of it to continue. But we had seven great years.

What did you hope to accomplish over the whole seven years?

I didn’t ever really know — I just knew I wanted to make a positive impact. If we have people with tiny ideas that can impact the community in really positive ways, then we’re just going to continue to get better. But really, my biggest thing I wanted to accomplish was planting that seed in people’s heads that if you have an idea, super, super small, that you should still go for it and push for it and not wait for the time to be right or not wait for things to fall into place. I have so many people in my life that are waiting for that perfect opportunity, waiting for that perfect moment to make their jump. And that’s my biggest outcome from all of this — if you want the community to be better, then do it.

How do you top that?

We have two new events that we’re working on. We have one for 2019 that’s actually going to be the same October time frame. It’s going to be a really silly fun event … called the Gallop 5K. It’s going to be a family-friendly stick horse 5K. We will give you a stick horse when you register and part of the event is galloping, stampeding or trotting through the Garden of the Gods. We’re going to be raising money for the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center, just to help keep that area nicely maintained, and for Rock Ledge Ranch. We also have a really fun event happening in 2020 in Denver. I can’t announce the official details yet, but it’s going to be raising money for literacy.

And I’m working on a little video series … letting young people realize that there is another side to what they’re experiencing — like the LGBT community, or being bullied, or being overweight, or sexually molested or having suicidal thoughts. And it will have true stories of people who went through something similar and now they have a happy and great life and were not stuck in that stage forever.

What are the passions that drive you now?

I always wanted to be a mom. Being a mom is very, very important to us, No. 1. So trying to raise my kids intentionally and thoughtfully is really important for me. Professionally, I love events and I want to continue to do events. I poured my heart and soul into events for seven years and I learned hands-on. I really care about Pilates, so I’d like to get recertified and teach more certification classes. I care about photography. And my brain mapping isn’t completely finished yet, but I really, really care about impacting the young community. I felt like when I was young, if I had more leaders to help me get through what I was going through, things would have been so much easier. If I could give the young community tools to overcome what they’re experiencing, that’s what I really care about.

What advice would you give to other young professionals?

I really feel like if you personally see a need for something, if you personally have a need for something, then that’s what you should go after. … It’s finding that little area that you find passion for and pushing for that specific area, [and] not just saying oh, this thing’s going to make me a lot of money. … And if you have passion behind something, people are going to follow you and trust you and support you. And if you have that support, then you’re going to go far, in my personal experience.