A Story about the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center
The Great Loop attracts some very interesting people. When you break it down, the Loop is really not that difficult, though it does demand confidence and gumption, traits that generally make people interesting. Such people reminded me of my early days in Breckenridge. Ski towns attract confident young people willing to put off careers, advanced degrees or marriage to have a bit of fun. Many don’t yet have a firm grip on reality, but what better way to challenge reality than with a smile on your face after skiing your ass off all day?
Most go home wiser and more mature after a season or two. Those who stay often have a talent, usually not yet discovered, that lead them to success in the fairy town atmosphere of a resort. Some get waylaid by drugs, alcohol, sex or ego but others wake up some day next to an equally talented partner and decide that Breckenridge may also be a nice place to raise a family. That made a town full of very interesting people, a younger version of those I found on the Great Loop.
To make a long story very short, some of Breckenridge’s most interesting and colorful began to provide recreational opportunities for people with disabilities in the mid to late 1970s. In an era where what you could do was more important than the initials after your name, instruction was by volunteers – simply do what you had to do to get people who couldn’t see, used a wheelchair or couldn’t express themselves well out into the wilderness. Let the wilderness do the rest, as it had done for so many of us.
The Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) was born.
People who had been told they couldn’t found they could; instructors often became students, learning what real determination could accomplish. The program grew quickly. By the early 1980s there was an instructor staff of 6-8 assisted by an intern program which has grown to be just as important as the BOEC itself; over the decades, many BOEC interns have gone on to start adaptive programs around the world.
In August 1984 I was asked to bring my raft as a luggage carrier for a BOEC raft trip on the Gates of Ladore, a remote and beautiful section of the Green River that flows through Dinosaur National Park in northeast Colorado. At the time I jumped at any opportunity to do a new river. Little did I realize how different this trip would be or how it would affect my life.
The Green River entering the
Gates of Ladore
800 foot tall Steamboat Rock
at the confluence of the
Green and Yampa Rivers
Dinosaur National Park
There were four ‘students’ on the trip: a brain injured man in his early thirties still trying to find his way after an automobile crash years earlier, a very independent minded paraplegic in his twenties, a middle aged man confined to a wheelchair from MS and a crusty farmer from the Midwest who had learned to live with his Cerebral Palsy. There were three instructors, three interns and me, the luggage carrier.
I’ve been around the BOEC and people with disabilities for so long now that it is somewhat painful to remember that at the beginning of this trip I was the typical able bodied American male, much more awkward, clueless and embarrassed around the disabled then they were around me. But with help from them and a few gentle reminders along the backside of my head from the instructors who I knew well, I was soon doing better.
Most private river trips of more than 4-5 boaters form groups which rotate daily chores to avoid potential bickering and avoidance of the less pleasant ones. On commercial trips, staff do the grunt work so paying customers are free to hike, read and just enjoy themselves.
The BOEC does things differently. The instructors explained and when necessary demonstrated what needed to get done. Then they stood back to let the group work out how to do it. Not necessarily the quickest or most efficient organizational process, but very empowering to those often over protected by well-meaning parents or teachers.
I was quickly impressed – no, that’s not the right word, more like humbled – by their determination to do whatever they could, even their willingness to push beyond what they thought they could to. They also weren’t shy about asking for help when they needed it, demanding a group effort that makes any river trip successful while educating me as well.
Navigating rocks and sandy beaches in wheelchairs was daunting at times,
but a bigger challenge was monitoring the body temperature of our MS 'student'. Here, two instructors support him while he cools off in the river. Never a word of complaint, only a smile of appreciation for where he was and what he was doing.
My favorite was George, the mid west farmer with CP. For some reason we hit it off and he wound up riding in my boat most of the time. He had a dry sense of humor which I enjoyed and told CP tinged tractor stories which were knee slapping funny and sometimes gut wrenching at the same time. He told a story about a visit to the doctor who slowed his speech as if he was talking to a kindergarten age kid. After putting up with this for a bit, George felt compelled to explain that he had CP and couldn’t talk very smoothly, but wasn’t stupid.
After watching me row for a while, George asked if he could try. Why not? We switched positions and he took up the oars. Over the years I’ve taught many people to row and read a river, but none came close to his enthusiasm for the challenge. Occasionally we’d go in circles as he worked to adjust his CP muscles to different motions than those needed to drive a tractor. I enjoyed the 360 degree view as much as his giddy excitement.
After a bit I noticed blood on my floorboard. My raft rig included two large ammo boxes strapped to the floorboard to either side of the rower. Over the years other boatmen or women looked askew at this, rightly thinking that they cramped the rower’s space. But just like L.T. my raft was smaller than most and the cans gave me the additional storage room I needed.
George held up his right hand, blood dripping from his knuckles. For whatever reason he couldn’t keep his right arm high enough on the back sweep to keep his knuckles from hitting the ammo can. I got out the first aid kit, taped up his knuckles and then wrapped a t-shirt around his fingers to pad his knuckles from the ammo can. Do what you have to do…
On we went with George still rowing. Bloody Knuckles were not about to chase him out of the Captain’s Chair.
George is in the middle of the back row
The Rest of the Story…
To be honest, I’m not sure George was George. His story and antics will stay with me forever but his name, well I’ve never been very good with names and I’m writing this story decades later. George strikes me as a good name for a strong Mid West farmer.
The story is a good start but doesn’t explain what the BOEC came to mean to me or how it how it came to dominate my life for a few years.
I did some additional volunteer work and was invited to join the BOEC Board of Directors in December 1987. After serving as treasurer I found myself Chairman of the Board in July 1990. If that seems a quick accession through the hierarchy of a Board of Directors, it was, but mostly because nobody else was willing to take the position.
The early transition from volunteer to paid staff had gone well. The Gates of Ladore trip was during its heyday. A dedicated staff with very good leadership skills built on the goodwill created by the original volunteers. They put the BOEC on the map. Many of the original volunteers stayed on as Board members.
As these early Board and staff members started to move on, the Board perhaps grew a bit complacent, or was at least unlucky. It hired a series of managers rather than leaders as Executive Director, none who had the get it done skills of the founders. Some of that was to be expected; the position was now a job, not necessarily a passion. Without strong leadership, the BOEC, never awash with funding, slowly drifted into financial crisis.
The only real redeeming value I brought to the Chairmanship was that I was stubborn and had good connections with the Town, mostly from playing softball with Town staff for years. I had also turned a business bought out of bankruptcy into a thriving ski shop.
A small, dedicated group of Board members remained. Without their heavy lifting the BOEC would not exist today. Even though neither was a Board member, I include two others in this group. Ann Stonington was a town matriarch, perhaps the matriarch of Breckenridge at the time, who with her husband ‘Stony’ nurtured numerous nonprofits under their strong and generous wings. The other was my business partner who I roped into doing the BOEC books and payroll and who put up with me constantly running off to deal with another crisis. I am grateful that he continued the shop’s strong support of the BOEC after I retired.
Two miracles then fell into the lap of the BOEC.
Richard Griffith headed a smallish family foundation and was very interested in the work of the BOEC. After sniffing around a bit, he decided to build a lodge for the BOEC to compliment the iconic cabin which had been moved to the old town reservoir property in the early days of the BOEC, more or less with the permission of the town. Mr. Griffith was literally a big man with a big heart. But at his core, he was a hardnosed businessman who didn’t suffer fools lightly. We somehow passed that test, and the Griffith Lodge went from ground breaking in May 1991 to reality in less than two years.
The second miracle was Scott Ingram. As much as you try to portray me as the ‘savior’ of the BOEC, you and I both know that without your exceptional leadership skills as Executive Director, I’d still be trying to convince people that the BOEC was worth saving.
The final thing that saved the BOEC was the BOEC itself. Despite tripping over itself for several years, the BOEC retained a groundswell of community support. Before Vail and big money started to change Breckenridge, everyone knew and were proud of their little non-profit gem, willing to overlook some rough spots if there was just a path forward.
During my first year as Chair we hit bottom. Staff left, the winter wilderness programming was cancelled, the ski program was a skeleton of itself, creditors were nipping at our butt and two Board members occasionally took turns meeting payroll for the small group of remaining staff.
To turn things around, we remodeled the BOEC structure to offer (and make money from) Professional Challenge Courses to corporations and groups nationwide as well as the disabled. We created a Friends of the BOEC. We arranged new credit backed by the personal guarantees of Board members. We improved our outreach program to reach more of our traditional clients. Mostly we just remained too stubborn to give up, even though all life support indicators were exhausted from their constant warnings.
By the beginning of my second year we were ready to introduce the plans for the Griffith Lodge and Scott as our new Executive Director. An event arranged to do both attracted hundreds who seemed both surprised and grateful that their gem had survived and even better, had a credible path forward. The Griffith Lodge gave us a springboard to launch a $750,000 Program Expansion Plan ($420,000 from the Griffith family and Foundation to build the Lodge) which reached 92% of that goal by the time I resigned the Chairmanship after my second year.
Even Scott admitted that a third year as Chair might amount to cruel and unusual punishment. I needed to return to a semblance of normalcy – after all, I owned a ski shop in a ski mecca but had not skied regularly in three years. My long off and on relationship with my future wife needed some attention too. I should add that our wedding reception took place in the Griffith Lodge several years later.
I also knew that the BOEC needed to move on from my heavy handedness. I left the Chair to an older, more congenial gentleman I had helped recruit to the Board who didn’t share the personal connection I had with the BOEC but brought more elaborate networking skills than playing softball with the town staff.
Scott left after his third year, mostly to give his wife her turn to flex her wings. He went on to get his PhD in anthropology and is now a college professor. His wife earned a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree and is now a practicing physician in family medicine.
I never warmed to Scott’s successor as Executive Director. All positions like this involve some degree of manipulation (spin), but his seemed to benefit him more than the BOEC. He was competent but in my opinion, far too quick to take credit for success built on other’s shoulders. That, perhaps, is a harsh way of saying that he never fully comprehended the mess the BOEC overcame during the four long years prior to his arrival that put him in a good position to succeed. He also missed a rare opportunity to put the BOEC on firm financial footing, but that’s a story best left in the back of the file.
The BOEC has since done much better hiring Executive Directors. Ironically, one of them had married one the instructors from the Gates of Ladore trip - who herself had been one of those steadfast Board members. The BOEC currently seems in good hands and serving its mission well.
This story was not easy. It’s more personal than I’d like and The Rest of the Story will not resonate with many outside the non-profit world.
Nevertheless, I offer Rest of the Story as a warning that not all non-profit gems survive. I have studied numerous matrixes of what a non-profit Board should look like. Yes, a Board should be diverse with lots of different expertise. Fat wallets help. But don’t overlook those who may not check all the boxes but bring passion, commitment and yes, a bit of stubbornness.
More important, I want my Grandchildren to know, even if many never know or appreciate what you've done, even if it demands more than you thought you had and fights with power you may not win, it is OK to pour your heart and soul into something in which you believe. Bruised egos and Bloody Knuckles heal. Your work and accomplishments remain. Trust yourself.