The year was 1994. She was armed with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and chemistry. He was leading a Summer Youth Fishing Program for Colorado’s Division of Parks and Wildlife at Denver’s Washington Park. He thought she was cute, so he’d ask her out almost every time they worked together. She’d always politely decline. After all she was betrothed to her high school sweetheart. Eventually she gave in and agreed to a date. They clicked over chilled beers and stimulating conversation. She eventually ended things with her fiancé and before long the fellow wildlife biologists were officially an item.

Fast-forward two years later in 1996; Scott and Stacie Gilmore were married and expecting their first child. They’d always planned on having a family together, but they had no idea they were also about to give birth to what would become their own Denver-based environmental education movement. The longtime esteemed members of Northeast Denver’s Montbello community, co-founded the urban youth focused Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK). Scott, a Denver native of African-American and Japanese heritage and Stacie, a Latina, says they felt impelled to create a non profit that reached out to students who are “traditionally overlooked and under-encouraged” in science and science-related careers, including:

  • urban youth
  • youth of color
  • girls
  • young people with limited academic opportunities

ELK, as the name suggests, focuses on teaching kids of color and at-risk youth about science, nature and social justice through hands-on fun activities such as fishing, hiking and camping. For example, each year youth in the ELK program camp in Rocky Mountain National Park to experience the natural world, volunteer in the park and learn about careers in the park service. Other regular activities include a day of service on the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday and overnight camping at the Denver Aquarium and Denver Zoo.

By all accounts their nearly 20-year-old mission appears to have been accomplished; and there are no signs of ELK efforts slowing down anytime soon. The organization reportedly serves more than 14,000 underserved, urban youth ranging in age from 5 to 25 each year through year-round intensive programs and in-school/after-school programs in Denver, Adams and Arapahoe counties. The Gilmores regularly recruit youth for ELK’s free programming at local schools and at community events.

The program currently boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate among participants. ELK also has raised more than $757,000 in scholarships to ensure graduates accomplish their college goals. But the Gilmores insist that the learning doesn’t stop with environmental education.

“We also assist young people in developing internal values from which they and their community will benefit,” says Scott, who now serves a deputy manager of parks and recreation for the City of Denver. He
contends that they are very hands-on, treating all of the ELK kids like their own children.

“Through leadership development, meaningful mentorship and long-term relationships, we help students to become educated, active participants in their communities,” he says. “ELK has established strong partnerships with community-based programs, foundations, government agencies and individual donors, which has created a sustainable organization in ELK.”

Program alum Nicole Jackson says the program helped her secure her current position as an Irrigation Technician and Horticulturist Assistant for Denver’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“I’m convinced that if I hadn’t joined ELK I probably would not be where I am today; I would not be as outgoing and active in the community,” she says.

Jackson, who is African American, says it was so rare to see a person of color in her position that when she first started some park visitors wrongly assumed that she was a juvenile offender working off a community service obligation.

“They assumed I was a criminal, so they asked me, ‘what did you do to get in trouble,’” recalls Jackson, with a laugh. “I was like, ‘no, I get paid to do this. This is my job.”

The ELK staff includes educators, scientists, conservationists, nonprofit administrators and others who are passionate about the environment and the outdoors. Under Stacie’s direction as Executive Director since its inception, ELK has helped expose thousands of youth to environmental education through science education, stewardship projects and outdoor experiences.

ELK, says Stacie, is an extension of her lifelong dedication to educate youth through science and conservation experiences. And she says she’s proudly done it with her husband at her side the whole way.

Now parents of three children (Sterling, 18, Samantha, 15, Serenity, 10) along with Hino Sato, 17, an exchange student from Japan, they have earned a reputation as experts at teaching kids about science, nature and social justice through the fun of fishing, hiking and camping. Many participants from the program end up with part-time jobs and eventually full-time permanent positions in the areas of natural resources and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“It’s so much more than what we learned about nature and the environment; there’s a family aspect of it too,” says ELK alum Dwane Matthews, 27. “Once you’re in the program you become a part of this family.”

Fellow alum Chiquita Sanders agrees:

“It’s like a mentoring program to keep you off the streets and introducing you to new things,” says Sanders, who is currently pursuing her master’s degree in speech pathology. “I was an inner city kid, before ELK I didn’t know that people went to the mountains and lived in the mountains and that there was so much to do outside of the city. I had no idea that I could come from where I come from and do the things that I did with ELK.”

The Gilmores say they also seek to transform the lives of the young people in the program by empowering them to improve their academic skills, inspiring them to pursue civic and community leadership opportunities and encouraging them to pursue environmental stewardship.

“We don’t just try to get them engaged with the outdoors, we also try to get them inspired to do well in school and to graduate from high school and colleges,” notes Stacie.

Alum Matthews insists that there’s a great need for similar programs for inner city youth. “ELK provides young people with an opportunity to not be a stereotype,” he says.  “Instead of feeling like, ‘hey, I’m going to go rob that store,’ ELK teaches you instead to be that person who is at the store helping that old lady put her groceries in her car.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, a longtime supporter, agrees with his point. “It is vital that we support organizations like ELK to educate the next generation about the importance of maintaining a safe and clean environment for our future,” says Hancock.

It seems that many others have heeded the mayor’s call. The year 2014 was quite prosperous for ELK. Stacie was among fourteen others from across the nation honored at a White House ceremony as a “Champion of Change” for her efforts engaging “communities and youth in environmental stewardship and conservation.” In November well-known “preppy” clothier L.L. Bean gifted a charitable donation of $15,000 and a variety of L.L. Bean Outdoor gear to the organization. The company also helped establish a scholarship with ELK aimed at helping to get more Denver-area youth engaged in the outdoors and enjoying Colorado’s wealth of recreational resources.

Though deeply honored by those accolades, the Gilmores admit that they’re most excited about 2015. ELK has entered into a partnership with the City of Denver and the Trust for Public Land to work collaboratively to create 5.5 acres of green space and an education center in Montbello. The effort, according to Mayor Hancock, will help to, “improve the quality of life for all residents in far Northeast Denver.” So far ELK has raised 60 percent of the estimated $6.2 million needed for the project. ELK and key partners plan to complete fundraising for the campaign in the next 12-18 months, begin the land restoration in 2015 and open the center no later than the 2016-2017 school year.

“We still have $2.5 million left to raise, but we’re so excited to see the progress made so far,” says Stacie of what she hopes will be named the ELK Educational Center, located off Peoria Street in Montbello. “We’re going to provide educational programs, tutoring, homework help and a host of other environmental programming,” she adds. “The best part is we’re going to be able to do all of this right here in our own neighborhood. We will no longer have to go across town to access these types of important opportunities.”
This year [cq 2015] also promises to be one of groundbreaking milestones in that Stacie plans to pursue public office, a coveted District 11 seat on the Denver City Council. The election is May 5. She plans to hand over ELK’s executive director reigns for the first time ever if she wins.

“It’s going to be a lot of work, but I am up for the challenge,” she says. “I’m just excited about the potential opportunity to continue to serve the community, but in a new way.”

ELK participants, adds Stacie, will also kick off 2015 with ice fishing and snowshoeing excursions.

“We’re just doing our part trying to get kids engaged in the outdoors.”