RIDGWAY – The George Gardner Experiential Education Scholarship Fund is a Ridgway organization with a big name and an even bigger heart.
Founded in 2008 following Gardner’s death in a climbing accident on the Grand Teton, the GGEESF has supported the Ridgway School Learn-to-Ski Program and the Ridgway High School Senior Outward Bound River trip. Now it is expanding its umbrella to offer scholarships to Ouray County kids who are motivated and want to further their learning outside of traditional educational settings. With Gardner, that always meant the out-of-doors.
Programs that will be supported by the new GGEESF scholarships include Outward Bound, the National Outdoor Leadership School, accredited snow and avalanche courses, and guide training programs, among others. Scholarships are open to county teens age 15-18. (In future, said GGEESF board member Deb Willits, the fund hopes to be able to offer scholarships in Ouray, San Miguel, and Montrose counties.) Priority will be given to those with financial need. Applications are available at both high schools, from Counselor Rick Williams or from Ouray School Dean of Students Di Rushing.
Gardner taught for years in the school systems in Ridgway, Naturita and Montrose, and he spent many years as a guide with the venerable Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, Wy. At the Ridgway School, he established the outdoor education program, which included summer rock and winter ice climbing, and the ongoing senior river trip.
“That river trip changes kids’ lives,” Willits said recently. It’s a five-day paddle down the Green River, through Cataract Canyon and its three Big Drops to Lake Powell, usually in the third week of the new school year, as a bonding experience for the seniors.
“I’d never been that far away from the world before,” said current Ridgway senior Stephanie Esposito, of her river trip last September. “It was a real challenge for me. You’re forced to really dig deep and try something you wouldn’t ordinarily do. You learn what you are physically capable of doing. You may be exhausted – paddling, paddling – you can’t give up. I felt like I really accomplished something.”
Ryan Parkinson was on the same senior trip. Gardner set it up so that guides with Outward Bound provide the gear and accompany the students and sponsors. It’s not cheap: it costs $600-$700 per paddler. But the GGEESF has been able, with help from the Mount Sneffels Education Foundation and from local philanthropist Gerry Weaver, to defray some or all of the cost for kids who need financial help.
“I knew George pretty well,” Parkinson said. “I used to go skateboarding with him after school. He was a great guy to hang out with. We’d sit and talk about ‘how everything is.’ He was such a mellow guy, humble and excited about life.”
Esposito remembered, “Everyone knew who George was. He’d sub for one of our teachers and get us up and moving, doing brain gyms, cross crawls. He always made us feel better about what we were about to face.”
The guiding world was devastated by Gardner’s death in a fall while free soloing an easy route on The Grand. “I don’t know a single human being who didn’t love George,” said Exum President Jack Turner.
Fellow GGEESF board members Colleen Gardner and Jerry Roberts wrote in the fund’s mission statement: “We believe that profound learning is often facilitated by time spent in the mountains, canyons and rivers to oceans of the world. These experiences give leadership and other life skills an arena in which to develop and flourish.”
So, if you’ve got an idea for experiential learning, or a program you’d like to participate in, pick up a scholarship application. Just call it the George Fund. Shorter name. Heart just as big.