‘Saving Our Children From Outdoor Deficit Disorder’
By Samantha Wright
RIDGWAY – When it came to education, George Gardner had a simple, yet profound, philosophy. Get the kids outside, give them direct exposure to nature, and let them play. Period. Not structured competition, not ego-driven conquest. Simple, unstructured play.
“George believed that in order to be a healthy, balanced student, you have to have this concept of play to balance your brain,” explained his wife Colleen. “And he was a great believer in the outdoor classroom. He was all about saving our children from ‘outdoor deficit disorder.’”
Gardner, who taught outdoor education in the Ridgway schools, as well as in Telluride and the West End, died in a mountaineering accident in the Grand Teton in 2008. He would have loved the way in which his family and community have honored his memory, by establishing a scholarship fund in his name that provides financial assistance to Ouray County youth who wish to pursue both nontraditional and traditional educational opportunities for personal growth and advancement – and especially outdoor educational programs.
Since it was established shortly after Gardner’s death, the George Gardner Scholarship Fund (the “George Fund” or GGSF for short) has evolved into an entity that is as robust, vibrant and visionary as the person for whom it is named.
Last year, the fund (now a licensed Colorado nonprofit organization that operates under the umbrella of the Telluride Foundation) assisted six college-bound students from Ridgway Secondary School, helped another spend a day with Exum Mountain Guides on a rock climbing course and provided the opportunity for a special needs student from Ouray to participate in several Telluride Adaptive Sports programs throughout the summer.
That was in addition to offering continued support to the Ridgway Elementary School Learn to Ski Program, and providing scholarships for Ridgway seniors participating in the senior Outward Bound River Trip that Gardner started many years ago.
It’s all made possible through funds raised at the annual Ouray County Winter Sports Swap, coming up next Friday, Oct. 18 and and Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Ouray County 4-H Event Center.
The swap provides the George Fund’s largest endowment. It features screaming deals on last year’s equipment and clothing from area shops such as Boot Doctors and Ouray Mountain Sports, as well as a deal section for locals’ used goods. It’s a great place to pick up (or sell) all kinds of high-quality winter gear, ranging from skis and snowboards to ice climbing equipment. Telluride season passes and T-cards will also be sold.
The ski swap started years ago as a fundraiser for the Ridgway School’s learn-to-ski program, but after Gardner died, the swap’s primary coordinator, Deb Willits, took the lead in transforming it from a school fundraiser to a fundraiser for the George Fund.
This shift in focus, along with a change in location to the 4-H Event Center, has allowed it to grow into a bigger, county-wide event.
PLAY IS THE ENERGY OF THE HEART
Gardner was a friend, mentor and teacher for over 35 years to kids and adults of all ages. He got his start teaching inner city kids from Chicago, and later moved to Colorado where he taught and inspired students in Boulder, Telluride, Naturita and Ridgway.
His myriad of skills and commitment to the potential of each student allowed him to teach a variety of subjects from elementary level through college.
George especially loved the “outdoor classroom”. He was a mountaineer and guide for the Exum Mountain Guides in Wyoming and the Colorado Outward Bound School. The Tabor Mountain School, George’s own experiential based program, utilized his local San Juan Mountains for his summer classroom.
“His enthusiasm for learning was contagious and he was a master at bringing out the best in his students,” said Colleen. “Kids felt comfortable to try new experiences encouraged by his ego-less and loving approach to all things. Most importantly he believed that students ‘learned by doing’. He taught kids teamwork and interpersonal skills that carried over into everyday life.”
Gardner was teaching in Telluride when he and Colleen first met. She recalled how he used to take the kids over to the ski hill and play hide-and-go-seek. “Even in Telluride, it wasn’t about training to be on the ski team; it was just about being outside and having fun,” she said. “Play is the energy of the heart.”
Gardner had an equally big impact on the adults in his life. DZi Foundation co-founder Jim Nowak, who recently joined the GGSF Board of Directors, got to know Gardner through the experience of ice climbing together.
“With ice climbers, there’s a lot of freakin’ testosterone around,” Nowak said. “But whenever we got together, George would always say, ‘No goals today, guys. No goals.’ It just kind of pushes the reset button; it’s a group reboot. ‘Let’s go out and have some fun.’ That was always what he said.”
“And from that, people would think nothing would happen,” reflected Colleen, who works in the field of kinesiology. “But it opens up your whole brain; play is the energy of the heart.”
A LASTING LEGACY
Joe Noll of Ouray never had a chance to be one of Gardner’s students, but he certainly is feeling the ripple effects of Gardner’s legacy.
Joe, who has Downs syndrome and graduated from Ouray High School with the Class of 2013, received a GGSF scholarship last summer to participate in the Telluride Adaptive Sports program.
Once a week, all summer long, he would join in activities such as hiking, rock climbing, horse-back riding or boating at Ridgway Reservoir.
Joe’s dad, Rick Noll, saw a huge transformation in his son as the summer progressed. “They were able to push him to do some things outside of his comfort zone,” such as overcoming a paralyzing fear of rock climbing, he said. But even more important were the social connections that Joe forged.
“With Joe, one of the challenges is socialization; he can be kind of timid,” Rick said. “But over the course of the first couple of outings, I saw a growth in Joe’s confidence and ability to interact with people he didn’t know. It’s kind of a paradox. As he has become more confident in himself, he has also become more aware of what it means to have Downs syndrome. He has become aware of his own unique abilities.”
And, Rick reflected, that’s really what George Gardner was all about. “When I think of George himself, he was a mountaineer, but it was more than just reaching the summit.”
Ridgway Secondary School graduate Hayden Heinhold is another GGSF scholarship recipient, currently in his freshman year at Ft. Lewis College in Durango. He was also lucky enough to have Gardner as a teacher when he was a sixth grader in Ridgway.
“George was an amazing, amazing man,” said Hayden’s mom, Melinda. “Oh my god, what a special person. He definitely influenced Hayden in a very big way, with climbing and all outdoor pursuits. Hayden definitely likes to play outside.”
For more information about GGSF scholarships and funded programs, or to donate, visit georgegardnerscholarshipfund.org.
SELL YOUR GEAR AT THE WINTER SPORTS SWAP
Community members are encouraged to bring their high-quality used winter sports equipment and clothing to sell at the swap. Fifteen percent of all proceeds from items sold benefit GGSF scholarships.
Drop-off hours are from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 18 at the 4-H Event Center. No gear will be taken after 4 p.m. Hours for the swap are Friday, Oct. 18, 5-9 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 19, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
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