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Catamount Institute connects kids with the great outdoors 

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click to enlarge COURTESY CATAMOUNT INSTITUTE
  • Courtesy Catamount Institute
Despite Colorado's reputation as an outdoor paradise, there are many people — kids, in particular — who don't get much time outside. The reasons kids aren't getting out are numerous: income disparity, lack of supervision, lack of motivation and isolation, just to name a few. Whatever a child's particular circumstances, the Catamount Institute stands ready to help them get off the couch and into the beauty of nature, and hopefully learn a little something, too.

Catamount operates as an outdoor adventure organization devoted to nurturing the next generation of ecological stewards. Geared toward kids from elementary age all the way up to the teens, the nonprofit prides itself on getting kids outside and more involved in the world around them, cultivating what they hope will be a lifelong relationship with nature. It impacts more than 8,000 students a year through field trips, after-school programs, summer camps and outdoor school.

Underlying every program and field trip is a firm focus on science, learning and giving back.

"Tying science to adventure helps kids retain information," says Catamount Executive Director Christopher Aaby. "When you get a little bit out of your comfort zone, you become more open to learning. And because you're combining that learning with an unforgettable experience? It sticks."

Aaby, who has worked with Catamount for seven years, is passionate about the organization's mission to foster a greater scientific understanding and appreciation of the environment.

"The kids of today are the ones who will have to deal with future environmental problems," he says. "It's important for them to receive a scientific education when they are young to prepare them for the challenges to come."

Catamount is located at the Beidleman Environmental Center in the 100-acre Sondermann Park off North Chestnut Street. The park, which is designated as an urban nature preserve, offers visitors a little bit of the wilds tucked amidst the pavement and structure of the city. The children who come to Catamount can explore the trails, play in the creek and discover wildlife, all under the watchful eyes of experienced volunteers.

The organization also takes kids beyond the grounds to places like Mueller State Park in Divide, Aiken Canyon Preserve south of Colorado Springs and other locations far beyond the city. They even allow schools without transportation to check out their 18-passenger vans so they can take field trips, too.

Finding volunteers to run their weekday programs and field trips can be a challenge. Many potential volunteers work between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Aaby hopes that by getting the word out, Catamount can find individuals willing and available to do the required (free) training and fill that void.

"We work with a solid core of about 25 great volunteers," says Aaby. "But more volunteers are always a need, particularly during school days."

In addition to adding volunteers, Catamount is also working to grow their funding. While half of their support comes from fees generated by camps, field trips and other programs, the organization also provides a significant number of scholarships for kids who can't afford to attend and a sliding scale for schools that don't have the funds to pay full price. That means more reliance on donor support.

And through annual growth their summer camp attendance has increased from 88 kids to 218. Field trip attendance has grown even more, tripling from 900 students to 3,000 in the last four years. Aaby and his crew of six employees, 13 teachers and multiple volunteers have been working hard to drive up funding to stay sustainable and continue providing all kids with opportunities.

"The hardest situation I can think of is to say no to a child who wants to be outdoors, who wants to be a part of nature," says Aaby. "With continued support from the community and events like Give! I'll never have to make that kind of decision."

Visit catamountinstitute.org for more.

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