Partner Highlight – Ford Church, Founder and Executive Director of Cottonwood Institute

-How did you first get involved in the field of Environmental Education?

I was involved with an after school outdoor education program in high school that really ignited my passion for the outdoors and protecting the environment. I studied business and marketing at University of Denver and my first job out of college was as an Account Manager in sales for Westword Newspaper. However, it wasn’t fulfilling at all. I wasn’t working in the outdoors; I wasn’t working with kids; I wasn’t changing the world, so I quit. My second job was working for Boulder Outdoor Survival School, a primitive skills school based in Southern Utah, and it was amazing, but they primarily worked with adults. After a few seasons helping them with operations, administration, marketing, PR, and instructing, I left to get involved with other outdoor programs for high school students. However, I had trouble even getting an interview without 5 years experience and I had 3 years experience out of college. I volunteered with the Sierra Club’s Inner City Outing program, became a steering committee member, and eventually co-chair of the Denver chapter. I worked for the Colorado Mountain Club’s Youth Education Program and the Colorado Fourteener’s Initiative to build my experience in the field of outdoor and environmental education.

-What motivated you to create your own non-profit environmental education organization?

I always dreamed of one day starting my own outdoor/environmental education program, but I wanted to put thought and intention behind the idea, so I went back to school and received a Master’s in Adventure Education from Prescott College. I was interested in how to connect students to their community and the environment before we expect them to care about it. In my research, I found that students were bored in school. They didn’t see how what they were learning applied to their lives or future. They were craving something different, something relevant, something rooted in the real world. What came out of my Master’s program was a for-credit, hands-on, student-directed, project-based class offered during the school day called the Community Adventure Program. Students meet 4-5 times per week for a semester, get to know each other, go on local hikes, practice leadership and team building skills, and go on 2 overnight camping trips. However, the part of the class that I love the most is that students have to design and implement an “Action Project” to address local environmental issues they are passionate about – not what adults tell them they have to do. In 2003, the class was piloted at New Vista High School, an alternative public high school in Boulder Valley School District, and we have been teaching the program there for the past 14 years. Despite everyone telling me not to start a nonprofit, I incorporated Cottonwood Institute (CI) in 2004 and we are starting our 13th year. We currently offer 33 programs in Boulder County, Denver, and now in Aurora, CO, and served 481 participants in 2017.

-Can you tell me a bit about Cottonwood’s involvement with Angevine and Middle School and Centaurus High School?

While there was a lot of programming for elementary and middle school students, there was a gap in later middle school and high school years, so CI now offers the Community Adventure Program at Angevine Middle School and Centaurus High School. What I also love about this project is that all of the partners agreed to offer programming for a minimum of 5 years, but our intention is to sustain our programs beyond the life of the grant. It has been an incredible experience so far, we have learned a lot, and we are so proud of students at Centaurus High School and their first Action Project reducing plastic waste through reusable grocery bags: and Angevine Middle School students and their first Action Project tasting crickets as an alternative source of protein, which was picked up by the Daily Camera:

-Can you please describe your most memorable experience with the Cottonwood Institute?

That is hard because the whole experience has been memorable and life-changing. When I started Cottonwood Institute (CI), I was 27 years old. I had never started a business or nonprofit before. I had that fear and self-doubt early on that I was too young and that I didn’t know what I was doing. But you will never know every single thing you need to know before starting something like this. So you have to trust yourself, work hard and hustle, surround yourself with great advisors and great staff, make mistakes and try not to repeat them, and try to build something great that will last way beyond you will. We know we are not perfect, but we are constantly trying to improve and strive for excellence. We are looking forward to connecting more students to the outdoors in 2018!









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