Outdoors is the in thing with alumnus

To most people getting a roof over their head is part of the American dream. Don’t count Ford Church (BSBA ’98) as “most people.”

For him, the sky and stars make the best roof. It’s something he’s thought since he was an eighth grader when a weeklong backpacking trip in the Georgia mountains off the Appalachian Trail ignited his passion for the outdoors.

The experience touched him so deeply that he sought out a high school in his hometown of New Orleans that offered an outdoor program and fueled his fervor even more.

But in his senior year the school killed the program. It was too expensive, administrators told him and the other students.

“That’s when I told myself that when I graduated, I wanted to start some kind of an outdoor adventure program for kids,” Church says.

That plan took a while. After graduating from the University of Denver, he sold newspaper ads.

“Not too passionate about that,” he says.

He moved on to something closer to his likes — the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, all the while brainstorming what his venture might look like.

“I’d ask high school kids what they thought about outdoor adventure and they’d say, ‘Aw, that’s what my parents would make me do,’ or ‘that’s what juveniles who get in trouble have to do.’”

The feedback left him undeterred. He decided to earn a master’s degree in adventure education from a school in Arizona, where he hammered out a rough blueprint.

After that, in 2004, he was able to put the finishing touches on his new baby: the Cottonwood Institute, a Denver nonprofit that works to make students community leaders and environmental stewards through adventure, wilderness survival and environmental service.

To date, Cottonwood has served more than 2,000 participants.

Eric Ellison, one of those former students and now an instructor at Cottonwood, says students learn to think critically on environmental and community problems.

“But the most important lesson is a new stewardship ethic, a desire to conserve and positively impact the wild areas around us.”

Church credits his DU education in marketing for the nonprofit’s success.

“We have to compete with a lot of other organizations and knowing how to market is key,” he says.

The institute also offers programs for adults, including wilderness and survival skills, some of which are offered free at area REI stores.

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