INSPIRED IMPACT is an ongoing blog series that gives voice to mission-driven organizations and passionate leaders and entrepreneurs who are making an impact in their communities and industries.

 



 

Ford Church is the Founder and Executive Director of the Cottonwood Institute. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube and learn more at cottonwoodinstitute.org.

 

WHAT DO YOU DO?
Cottonwood Institute (CI) is committed to transforming the way we empower public school students to be leaders and problem-solvers in their communities.

 

WHY DO YOU DO IT?
CI’s vision is to inspire a new generation of 21st century leaders who are environmentally aware, civically engaged, and empowered to make a positive impact within their communities. CI’s mission is to connect underserved public school students to the outdoors and empower them to take action to improve their schools, the community, and the environment for future generations.

CI addresses three primary problems: 1. Many public school students are bored. They are told what to learn, they are not in the driver’s seat of their own learning, they don’t have a voice, and they don’t see how what they are learning is relevant to the real world. 2. So many students that CI works with see the mountains every day and have never been because there are too many barriers to get outside and explore nature. We can’t expect students to care about the environment if they never have the opportunity to explore the outdoors. 3. There are so many environmental issues facing our communities, but many middle and high school students lack the awareness, knowledge, and skills to do something positive to address these issues. It doesn’t have to be this way.

CI collaborates with schools and youth organizations, primarily middle and high school students, to deliver high quality, high impact, innovative environmental education and service-learning programs during the school day for academic credit that are designed to: 1. Help students exercise their voice through its hands-on, student-centered programming model. 2. Provide students with an authentic opportunity to become leaders and to do something positive to address real world issues they are passionate about in their communities. 3. Remove barriers to explore the outdoors, including gear, food, transportation, and professional instruction.

CI’s core program is called the Community Adventure Program (CAP). CAP is an innovative 18-week-long class public school students take during the school day for academic credit. During CAP, students meet 4-5 days a week, go on hikes, overnight camping trips, learn about and discuss local issues, choose an issue to address as a class, and collaborate with other local organizations to design and implement a student-directed Action Project to make a positive impact in their community. CAP students have tackled flood restoration projects, wildfire mitigation projects, organized bike to school days, food desert projects, organic gardening and composting projects, projects to help save the bees, and more. CI’s hands-on, project-based programs teach essential 21st century skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, work ethic, and grit!

 

WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
CI programs teach students the skills they need to ignite change, not just talk about it. The change theory that CI has adopted is: Gift + Issue = Change. Every student has a gift and when they apply it to an issue they are passionate about they will change themselves, which will ripple out to their friends and family, their schools, their communities, the environment, and the world!

Recently, a group of CI middle school students from STRIVE Prep–Westwood campus was interested in addressing the food desert issue in the Westwood neighborhood of Denver for their Action Project. Their neighborhood lacks access to fresh fruit and vegetables, so they wanted to do something positive about it. They brainstormed many ideas, but decided to raise money to plant three fruit trees in their community. CI introduced the students to its partners at Re:Vision in the Westwood neighborhood. Re:Vision has an urban farm on site and could use the fruit trees to sell fruit at their weekly farmer’s markets during the growing season and at their community owned food-coop when it opens. Students got to work, raised money for the fruit trees and supplies, and planted three trees at Re:Vision, which will bear fruit for their community for many years to come.

In 2017, CI delivered 33 programs, served 481 participants, logged 18,700+ program contact hours, and recorded 7,100+ service-learning project hours through its core educational programs.

 

WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO MAKE THIS IMPACT?
I founded founded CI in September 2004. The idea for CI was a culminating project of my master’s thesis from Prescott College in 2003 and came from my passion for the outdoors, my commitment to the environment, my love for inspiring the youth of America, and from my commitment to giving back to the community. I started piloting the Community Adventure Program at New Vista High School in Boulder, CO, in 2003 and then incorporated Cottonwood Institute one year later.

 

WHAT’S YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE ORGANIZATION AND THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I want to live in a world where youth are empowered to make their communities a better place, where people care about each other and support each other, and where people are stewards of our environment.

 

WHAT RESOURCES DO YOU NEED TO MAKE THOSE DREAMS COME TRUE?
CI needs a variety of resources to make our vision and mission come true. As a 501(c)3 educational nonprofit, CI always needs financial resources to fully fund its programs. The biggest funding priority for the 2017 – 2018 school year is to ensure that CI’s highest impact program, the Community Adventure Program (CAP), is fully funded and supported. CI has commitments to deliver 15 semesters of CAP during the 2017 – 2018 school year, including seven semesters in Boulder County. Each semester has the capacity to serve up to 15 students, or 225 students for all 15 semesters, and will deliver 23,512 program contact hours. Each semester of the Community Adventure Program costs $12,000 to deliver including professional instruction, gear, food, supplies, land access, transportation, administrative, and logistical support.

But CI also needs outdoor gear and equipment in good shape to help connect students to the outdoors and other non-financial resources. To check out CI’s wish list, go to http://www.cottonwoodinstitute.org/get-involved/ways-to-give/wish-list/.

 

WHAT IS (OR HAS BEEN) YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE?
CI’s biggest challenge is raising the financial resources it needs to deliver all of its programs year after year. One time donations are great, but larger, multi-year, unrestricted gifts help ensure CI’s long-term sustainability as well as CI program’s long-term sustainability and success. Transportation is another challenge and CI is exploring acquiring three 15-passenger vans to help transport its students.

 

WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER LEADERS LOOKING TO MAKE AN IMPACT?
Making change happen in your community is hard work! My advice to others looking to make an impact is to lead with your passion, hustle harder, tackle challenges head on, get creative, find a way to make it happen, and never give up.

 

HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
If folks are interested in supporting CI, they can go to our website to learn more.

 


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