Cottonwood Institute Celebrates Environmental Education in Denver with Base Camp Bash

The nonprofit Cottonwood Institute, founded in 2004, has worked with thousands of students in Denver to cultivate a passion for the outdoors. The annual Base Camp Bash on April 11 gives the city an opportunity to support its efforts.
Ford Church fostered his Cottonwood Institute out of a pilot program he organized as part of his master's thesis in 2003.

He wanted to educate city kids about the environment and get them involved in eco-minded projects, but he flipped the usual strategy on its head.

"It was about connecting them to the outdoors before we asked them to care about it," says Church, the organization's executive director. "How do we teach our kids to solve problems and not just complain about them?"

The concept evolved and now gets underserved middle and high school students in metro Denver to initiate ecologically-minded service projects, anything from setting up an organic garden to striving for zero waste.

The summer programs take students on multi-day programs away from Denver.Branding is key. "We call them 'action projects,' because, in focus groups, kids say service is boring," says Church.

Last year, Estrella Damian won the Institute's annual Ripple Effect Award for her work establishing a worm composting program at STRIVE Prep's Excel Campus in northwest Denver. Her team worked with Waste Farmers and Denver Urban Gardens to divert food waste from the cafeteria into a pair of local gardens.

Come summertime, Cottonwood switches over from its work in local schools to multi-day programs it produces with youth organizations that cover such topics as flood restoration and wolf ecology.

Based at the Alliance Center in LoDo, the Cottonwood Institute today has three full-time employees and works with a network of about 15 professional educators and guides who "put some depth" into the programs.

Inspiration in the Big Easy

Before starting his nonprofit, Church worked with the Colorado Mountain Club and the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative after an unsatisfying stint selling ads for Westword.

He says his original inspiration was an outdoor program he participated in as a high school student in the early 1990s in New Orleans.

Church went backpacking, rock climbing and canoeing for class credits, and in the summer traveled to such Colorado outdoor meccas as the San Juan Mountains and Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Cottonwood Institute has a summer program that is focused on endangered wolves."We'd pack up a van and leave New Orleans and head up here," he says. The trips led him to move to Colorado to attend University of Denver after high school.

But his school cut the program when he was a senior. "At the time it was probably the only outdoor program of its kind in the South," he laments. "They didn't know what they had."

That realization helped lead to his master's thesis, which in turn led to the Cottonwood Institute.

Church has come a long way in the last decade. In 2014, the Cottonwood Institute logged more than 12,000 program hours working with 415 local students.

"It's been a real fun ride," he says. "I didn't have any expectations of doing this."

Base Camp Bash

The organization's big annual fundraiser, the Base Camp Bash, takes place at RedLine in Curtis Park on the evening of April 11."We're expecting 200 people at the event," says Church.

The night kicks off with a VIP party featuring cocktails from Randy Layman of Ace Eat Serve before the doors opening to the general public at 7 p.m. The organization will then present its annual Ripple Effect Awards to the most impactful students, followed by live and silent auctions. (The former will be led by Andy Seth, a.k.a. "The Accidental Auctioneer.") Snooze and Great Divide are the food and beer sponsors, and a Dixieland jazz band will provide music.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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