At the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center: Building self-esteem, through the outdoors |

At the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center: Building self-esteem, through the outdoors

Kathryn TurnerSummit Daily News
Special to the Daily/BOEC

After interning for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center a while back, Elizabeth McKee was left with palpable emotions she was “almost unwilling to acknowledge,” but chronicled for the nonprofit’s newsletter. “I must ask myself daily if I would have the courage I have seen in so many participants,” McKee wrote. “It is more than courage to do the ropes course or go rafting, although in many ways these parallel the bravery the individuals who come here must have simply to get through each day in their own personal life.” Like the ability to carry on, “even if you need someone to help you get dressed or go to the bathroom … those little things we all take for granted,” McKee said. And for many of the organization’s disabled and special-needs participants, the programs they attend help build up that existing courage even more, as well as socialize, and give them a better sense of self-esteem. “We give them the opportunity to work through a challenge, whether it’s emotional or physical,” said the BOEC’s associate program director Claire DiCola. “People feel really accomplished and proud … it’s exciting to watch.”

Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1976, the BOEC is an outdoor adventure education center that serves all people, but focuses on those with disabilities and special needs. Through open-enrollment programs, and those set up with groups like the American Cancer Society and the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado, attendees get to do everything from skiing, conquering ropes courses, whitewater rafting and camping to working on other initiatives meant to develop team-building and leadership. Programs are tailored for individual groups, and are held mostly in Summit County – some trips venture outside the county, and even the state – and have grown to serve people from all over. Last year, the nonprofit hosted people from 48 states and six countries. The Brain Injury Alliance does seven sessions a year with the BOEC, and has been doing so since the mid-’80s. “I like their enthusiasm, their flexibility, their knowledge. It’s a great group of people from top to bottom,” said Linda Heesh of the Alliance. “These sessions do so many things for the brain-injured community.” One of most important of those is socialization, Heesh said. Bruce Fitch, executive director of the BOEC, agrees. The programs help some people escape their shells, and the everyday experience of living with a disability, he said. DiCola was recently told by one of the organization heads the BOEC works with that there’s an unbelievable amount of therapeutic progress accomplished in a week – sometimes what might take years to accomplish in a hospital. Outdoor recreation isn’t just beneficial to our lives, but “therapeutically important,” Fitch said.

DiCola, who has been with the BOEC for eight years, and was also an intern, has stayed on because of the opportunity to interact with so many different types of people. The nonprofit serves those with numerous types of disabilities, like multiple sclerosis, brain injuries, amputees, spinal cord injuries and autism. And, over the years, it has been growing. While the organization has branched out to serve people from all over the country, it has been expanding its programming too. Sessions for Parkinson’s disease patients and their families began this year; Fitch said the program isn’t as adventure-based, but rather, more of a respite and quality end-of-life experience for participants. Sessions for people living with ALS are more recent, as well.

The nonprofit is only possible through community partnerships, Fitch said. BOEC has between 250 and 300 volunteers, and it operates on land donated by the Town of Breckenridge. Lift tickets for the skiing and snowboarding programs are donated by Vail Resorts. Grants and donations make everything possible, Fitch said. Only one-third of the nonprofit’s income comes from regular and subsidized program fees, although “I don’t think we’ve ever turned anyone away,” he said. And while the program exists to serve people with special needs, enhance their lives and help them enjoy Summit, Fitch said it benefits the local economy as well. He estimates that each participant brings 2.5 people up with them. “We want people to enjoy Summit County,” he said. For more information about the BOEC, go to

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