Nestled among the Tucson Mountains, the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, or Camp Cooper as it’s affectionately known, has introduced the beauty of the Sonoran Desert to Tucson children since 1964.
A partnership between the Tucson Unified School District and the University of Arizona’s College of Education, the Cooper Center is the only organization to provide overnight camping experiences to students who might not otherwise be exposed to the desert’s ecological wonders.
“If you ask any of our fourth-graders, they’ll tell you the highlight of their elementary experience is Camp Cooper. Going out there, staying several nights, and learning in a fun, hands on, and personal way – it’s an experience that outranks everything else we do,
Students return from Cooper Center with memorable experiences and a real connection to the natural environment that surrounds them, said Jennifer Spohn, a teacher from Lineweaver Elementary School.
“If you ask any of our fourth-graders, they’ll tell you the highlight of their elementary experience is Camp Cooper. Going out there, staying several nights, and learning in a fun, hands on, and personal way – it’s an experience that outranks everything else we do,” Spohn said.
Erik Radack, a fifth-grader at Lineweaver Elementary School, visited the Cooper Center last year and remembers how fun it was to learn about the food chain and how to be environmentally responsible.
“I turn the lights off every time I leave the room now,” he said.
Director Colin Waite leads the center, managing a small but passionate staff that provides immersive programming, teaches basic ecological concepts and promotes responsible living in the face of a changing environment.
“Most kids who visit are from low socio-economic areas, and many have never ventured outside their neighborhoods,” Waite said. “We teach kids about how everything is connected in nature and how important it is for all of us to take care of the environment.”
Last year, despite losing more than half of its operational funding, the center remained in operation, thanks to an effort Waite led to raise $80,000 in four months through crowdfunding and local grants. This year, crowdfunding and grants amounted to more than $125,000. A Cooper Center Endowment Fund also was established, and Waite hopes the endowment will continue to grow so they can move from fundraising every year to a future that is financially stable.
“Over 130,000 Southern Arizonans have experienced the Cooper Center over its history. They have fond memories of the center, and their support is key in our success,” Waite said.