Catamount Institute takes classroom outdoors

Catamount’s Erik Mattson plays in the mud with Piper Zavorka during the Creepy Crawly Safari.

Catamount’s Erik Mattson plays in the mud with Piper Zavorka during the Creepy Crawly Safari.

Several girls gathered to the west of the giant, muddy puddle that had formed just outside the boundaries of Sondermann Park, where the sounds of Interstate 25 are all but lost alongside the gurgle of Mesa Creek.

“I’m not touching any mud,” one said, matter-of-factly.

“Me either,” was the response.

All of that changed. The dozen or so 6- to 8-year-olds taking part in the Catamount Institute’s Creepy Crawly Safari Summer Camp discovered that, despite living in or near the city, there’s much to be explored beyond the concrete jungle.

The institute, a Colorado Springs-based 501(c)3, focuses on “developing ecological stewards through education and adventure,” according to Executive Director Alicia Archibald. But the educating doesn’t take place in a classroom, and curriculum ranges from rock climbing to rappelling, cross-country and downhill skiing to caving, fly fishing … and getting really dirty.

Created in 1997, the Catamount Institute was born as a private foundation when Colorado College professors Howard Drossman andJulie Francis turned 177 acres of the old Catamount Ranch near Woodland Park into a campus focused on environmental stewardship, education and research. In 2004, the Catamount Institute moved to its current location at the Beidleman Environmental Center within Sondermann Park. In 2006, the institute became a public nonprofit corporation while the Teller County campus continued to operate separately as a private foundation under the name Catamount Center.

According to Archibald, the institute sets out to educate children through field trips and after-school, spring and summer break programs.

“It’s about teaching kids about the ecosystem they live in and interact with,” Archibald said. “This gives them a good sense of how they impact the environment and how the environment impacts them.”

She said the goal is to get kids outside not only for the physical benefits, but because interacting with the environment gives them “a sense of ownership and leadership,” she said. “Then they want to do something about it. They want to protect it.”

The learning opportunities develop with changing times, Archibald explained, adding that this summer will be the first season for a wildfire service camp for 13- through 16-year-olds in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Field Institute.

“[The fires] opened up partnership opportunities to work with RMFI,” Archibald said. “We’ve worked with them in the past. They do the service work, we do the education.”

Erik Mattson, the education program coordinator at Catamount Institute, became involved with the organization as an undergraduate at Colorado College. He applied for and was granted a Public Interest Fellowship through CC his junior year. He graduated in 2012 and was hired full-time for the summer season. Mattson studied history and political science, but discovered during his junior year that he really wanted to be an educator.

“This job sold me on teaching, especially environmental education,” Mattson said.  “This has been great for professional development.”

Mattson facilitates field trips during the school year and helps to plan camps year-round.

He said his greatest job satisfaction is derived from children developing a love for the outdoors.

“Two girls stayed after one of our camps and they were smelling a tree,” Mattson said. “They were saying, ‘It smells so good,’ and I thought, ‘You’re on yourway.’ ”

Mattson said organizations like the Catamount Institute are essential because they have the capability to reach every child in some way.

“It really caters to all kids and all learning styles,” he said. “Classroom teachers say it’s hard to [maintain interest] in some subjects and kids are fading. The outdoors offers a mix of stimulation that creates the perfect learning environment.”

The nature of business

The Catamount Institute isn’t just for children.

The organization hosts an annual sustainability conference in the fall. This year’s event will take place Sept. 26-27 at Colorado College.

“This year, the uniqueness of the conference is that we will have one day of professional development. In the past it’s been two days,” Archibald said. “It’s for businesses that want to learn more about [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] buildings or ideas around energy efficiency, recycling and water conservation in their buildings. It will cover ways to save on cost and at the same time protect the environment.  … It’s really people, planet and profit and how all three come together. The conference focuses on that on a high level.”

Archibald said the following day will include an inaugural sustainability fair, free to the public.

“Our hope is people who come for the professional development day would also come Saturday and bring their families with them.”

She said the fair covers topics including what can be done in the home to save money and help the environment. Partners, including Colorado Springs Utilities and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, will be present.

Archibald said the institute also hosts quarterly networking opportunities including one in October at the Ivywild School. The event will include a tour of the facility followed by an onsite happy hour at Bristol Brewery.

“So we would go to a sustainable business, we would learn about what they’re doing and how they’ve reached their goals and then have a happy hour at a sustainable [brewery],” Archibald said. “We’ve learned you can do so much more business over coffee — or beer. It’s amazing what happens when people are relaxed. Go, get inspired and then hang out together, have a relaxed conversation and even strategize what you want to do next.” 

Archibald added that the Catamount Institute website — catamountinstitute.org — maintains a sustainable business network page, which lists all members.

Archibald said adding adult programs will be one of her main focuses in the coming year.

“We want to promote team-building or working with other organizations in town to get them outside. Sometimes it’s a matter of recreation and relaxation. If there are people in your office who just want to get outside and get away from the computer for awhile, we want to take them on a guided walk. It’s been talked about. Our next step is building that piece more.”

The basics

Catamount Institute has a full-time staff of four, as well as several part-time positions and yearly interns from Colorado College and UCCS. One staff member is funded through the Heather Campbell Chaney Environmental Fellowship, and the institute is governed by an 11-member board made up of professionals with experience in education, law, environmentalism and nonprofits.

Archibald said there is an abundance of nonprofits and causes in the community, which can result in funding fluctuations. The institute’s current annual budget is approximately $300,000.

“With the fires the past couple years and the flooding … it’s been a hit to the community, so we’ve had to look at our funding model, going from lots of grants and philanthropic dollars to building an income stream through camps and field trips and educational programs,” Archibald said. “We charge fees, and when we get funding we pursue grants and donations.”

Archibald said about one-third to one-half of the institute’s budget is self-sustaining, and the goal by the end of 2015 is to cover half of the operational costs through fees.

“The goal is to grow our organizational budget as the need for programs grows. This year has been a good year and the budget is growing,” she said. “Our budget is very balanced and we’ve worked hard to make sure we’re fiscally sustainable. We know there has to be value in what we offer. We’ve heard [positive feedback] from community members for 15 years now. That, to us, is an indicator that the program has value.”  nCSBJ