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Mancos-based outdoor education program celebrates 40 years

Co-founder says teens seek authenticity in educational experiences
Deer Hill Expeditions participants backpack through trails near Engineer Mountain. (Courtesy of Deer Hill Expeditions)

Deer Hill Expeditions may be the best kept secret in Southwest Colorado.

At least that is what many of its alumni have joked, according to co-founder Doug Capelin.

The Mancos-based outdoor education program is going strong after 40 years.

Deer Hill started in 1984 under the direction of Capelin and his wife Beverly. The program allows students to take three-week expeditions into the wilderness to learn in an experiential-based model.

Over the years, the Capelins have built strong relationships with families and community leaders on the Navajo Nation and in Hopi and Zuni pueblos. The Capelins were longtime educators in Silverton and Grand Junction.

“I kind of took elementary school values and put them in a form that adolescents could relate to,” Capelin said.

Students learn how to connect what they are taught in the classroom with real-life experiences involving outdoor expeditions.

Usually, the expeditions consist of a week of rafting, a couple of days doing community service and cultural exchange projects, and a backpacking trip. During the three-week expedition, students return to base camp between segments to shower and pick up more supplies.

The Capelins’ strive to teach teenagers how to use ethics and take personal responsibility.

“It does come down to a lot of basics,” Doug Capelin said. “Do you care about other people? Do you listen? Do you have the courage to do something you've never done before? Are you willing to take a risk? Is it OK to be away from home and be in a strange environment like the wilderness?”

For the community service and the cultural exchange portion of the program, students stay with host families from the Navajo Nation or the Hopi and Zuni pueblos.

Capelin said some of it depends on what kind of help the tribes need. It could be preparing for Kachina dances or rebuilding bread ovens and sheep corrals.

“It's all about sharing, connecting, doing something together,” Capelin said.

Young people are hungry for authenticity, Capelin said. This is what he and his wife have discovered over the last 40 years of running the outdoor education program.

“They have an instinct for what's real – who's been real with them and who's just blowing smoke,” he said. “Kids can tell if you're being authentic with them, or whether you're just herding them around and you wish you were somewhere else.”

Capelin serves as the executive director of the Deer Hill Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide scholarship funding so that students can go on the expeditions.

Deer Hill Expeditions is now under the ownership of his two son-in-laws. Co-owner John Palmer said the cost of one of the expeditions can range from $3,100 to $6,000.

But Palmer said 60% of the participants attend expeditions on full-ride scholarships. That is why it is important for the foundation seek financial relief for those who want to attend the trips.

Deer Hill originally started as a summer program. But in 2008, it branched out into school programming that runs from spring to fall.

“There's a lot of self-discovery, connection to self, connection to place and connection to others through our expeditions,” Palmer said.

When students are participating in the expeditions or other Deer Hill programming, students cannot use their cellphones. That is to help them better connect to the outdoors.

Palmer said students' perception of cellphone and social media has changed in recent years.

“The youth today are more aware than ever about the detriments of social media,” Palmer said.

Many students enjoy the time away from the screen. That hasn’t always been the case. Palmer said the time away from a phone and other electronic devices relieves the stress and mental health issues brought on by constantly being on social media.

“They appreciate that we'll give you a reprieve (and) you don't need to worry about any of that kind of stuff,” he said.

The reprieve comes from knowing they can build authentic connections with other participants on the expedition. Palmer said Deer Hill is invested in combining Deer Hill Expeditions and the Deer Hill Foundation into one nonprofit.

He said that will help steward Deer Hill’s mission for the next 40 years.

“We are a program that helps young people grow into their potential,” Capelin said. “The wilderness and service stuff that we do is how we do it.”


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