Snow person at Staunton State Park!


What We Do

Cottonwood Institute (CI) is an award-winning 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in Denver, Colorado. Our vision is to awaken the changemaker within every student.

Our Mission Statement:

Cottonwood Institute is on a mission to connect middle and high school students to nature and inspire them to protect it.

How We Do It

Cottonwood Institute collaborates with schools and youth organizations along the Colorado Front Range—primarily for historically marginalized middle and high school students—to provide high quality, high impact environmental education and service-learning programs.

Jessie on the Changemakers backpacking trip in Dominguez CanyonDuring Cottonwood Institute programs, students:

  • Explore their community
  • Go on local hikes and overnight camping trips
  • Learn about hyper-local environmental issues and participate in hands-on science education
  • Design and implement hands-on, student-directed Action Projects to do something positive to address those issues

Read more about our impact in our 2022-23 Year in Review.

During the 2022-23 PROGRAMMING year, Cottonwood institute:

Teamed up with 16 educational partners

Delivered 26 separate programs

Worked with 461 participants along the Colorado Front Range

Logged 27,302 program contact hours

Recorded 7,203 service learning hours

Littleton Academy students pose in front of a beautiful sunset at Mission:Wolf

Why We’re Different

Cottonwood Institute is one of the only local non-profits along the Colorado Front Range that blends environmental education and service learning. We prioritize depth over breadth; programs are up to a year long with 40-75+ contact hours per student. We aim to build longstanding partnerships within our communities, with 65% of our current program partners having worked with us for 5+ years.

Our programs inspire students to ignite change, not just talk about it. Cottonwood Institute’s change theory is: Gift + Issue = Change. Every student has a gift and when they apply it to an issue they are passionate about, they will change themselves. That change will ripple out to their friends and families, their schools and communities, the environment, and the world.

To help break down barriers to outdoor access, our programs are free for students and families, including all transportation, gear, food, and professional instruction.

We can’t expect students to care about the environment or to protect it until they first have an opportunity to explore nature and develop a powerful connection to it.

Mission: Wolf

Who We Collaborate With

Cottonwood Institute programs provide a once in a lifetime experience for Colorado Front Range middle and high school students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to explore the outdoors and make a difference in their community.

Our 2023-24 program partners that are a funding priority include:

For our donor supported programs, CI primarily works with program partners that work with historically marginalized students that qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty. During the 2022 – 2023 school year, on average, 70% of youth qualify for free or reduced lunch. 47% of youth identify as Hispanic/Latino/a/x; 28% Caucasian; 17% African-American, and 8% identify with other races. In terms of gender identity, 56% of youth identify as male, 43% female, and 1% identify as non-binary/other.

Click here to learn more about our funding priorities.

Our Story

Cottonwood Institute was founded by Ford Church in September 2004. The idea for Cottonwood Institute was a culminating project of his master’s thesis in 2003 and came from his passion for the outdoors, his commitment to the environment, his love for inspiring the youth of America, and from his commitment to giving back to the community. To read more about our founding, check out our article in Voyage Denver.