Partnerships are Key to Connecting Kids with the Great Outdoors

Kids participate in a backpacking trip through The Nature Connection.

Kids participate in a backpacking trip through The Nature Connection.

Kat Fitzpatrick wears many hats. Since joining The Nature Connection (TNC) as executive director in 2018, Fitzpatrick has taken on roles as diverse as facilitating K-12 outdoor education, managing grants, fundraising, working with public land agencies, promoting environmental stewardship, and developing community partnerships. She’s even learned how to cut steel, a skill needed when she and a friend designed and built a new storage system for TNC’s extensive inventory of cross-country ski gear.

Fitzpatrick’s versatility, a trait she shares with TNC’s Program Director Priscilla Williams, makes her a good fit for TNC, a nonprofit providing hands-on outdoor experiences to K-12 students in Delta County and Olathe. Interestingly, both Fitzpatrick and Williams are western Colorado natives, with Fitzpatrick coming from Basalt and Williams
from Palisade.


TNC started about a decade ago when two Delta teachers began taking their students on outdoor-oriented field trips. At that time, partnerships with Grand Mesa Nordic Council and the Delta County School District helped the organization grow.

Today, TNC partners with at least 18 agencies, nonprofits, and businesses, including the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and Colorado Canyons Association. It is guided by six core values: service, excellence, integrity, innovation, collaboration, and sustainability. 

TNC serves approximately 6,000 students and offers year-round programing ranging from winter ecology trips and cross-country skiing, to summer camps featuring rafting, backpacking, paddle boarding, and mountain biking. Summer internships for high school students are available. 

Place, Programs, Pathways

In late 2017, TNC received a three-year $1.7 million Inspire Grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GoCo) to fund three categories: Place, Programs, and Pathways. 

Place focuses on “permanent developments that help get kids active and outside,” explains Fitzpatrick. The results thus far include 11 climbing boulders installed at elementary schools and construction of a pump track and mountain bike trails at TNC’s main location — known as the Hub — in Hotchkiss. 

Expansion of the Hub continues into 2019 with two additional boulder installations, a playground, and shade structures. Additionally,
an archery range and climbing wall are being built at Cedaredge Middle School. 

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Programs encompasses TNC’s K-12 outdoor education programming during the school year and throughout the summer, including day camps and overnight backpacking trips.

Recognizing that not all children have access to outdoor gear, TNC is establishing “gear libraries” where kids use a library card to check out mountain bikes, backpacks, camping stoves, kayaks, and more. Gear is currently available from the Hotchkiss Hub, with additional gear libraries coming to the Cedaredge Public Library, Fort Uncompahgre in Delta, and Olathe’s
Lions Park. 

Finally, Pathways provides outdoor-focused internships for high school students in Delta County and Olathe. The goal is to help students find opportunities for employment and careers within the outdoor industry, and to “help them get a foot in the door” through field work with agencies like the Forest Service, local organic farms, and TNC.

Building Partnerships

Of all the hats Fitzpatrick and her staff wear, building community partnerships is the most important. Fitzpatrick proudly credits TNC’s success to working with other agencies and organizations. She advises school districts and communities interested in building similar programs to do the same.

“Finding partners that are committed and have a similar mission and goals has been one of our biggest strengths,” explains Fitzpatrick. “Look for partners with whom you can come together to create something you both believe in. Partnerships are so important, because we couldn’t do this alone.” :