“The Power of a Good Idea.” This is Dr. Aris Sophocles’ formidable title of the book he would write about the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) and it’s 44-year history. As one of its co-founders in 1976, the New Jersey-native is in the unique position to write this manuscript as he was not only a part of this “good idea’s” humble beginnings but has seen it through from its inception to the present day. As a continued board member, treasurer and finance committee chair, it is painstakingly obvious that Sophocles is one of the key pieces of the puzzle that makes up what the BOEC is today.
Dr. Sophocles enjoys some fly fishing
The BOEC – and Colorado in particular – however, wasn’t a devised plan for the young doctor in the early 1970’s after his undergraduate days at Harvard University and graduation from Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. The East Coast native arrived in Denver in 1970 for what he thought would be a one-year internship before returning to Philly to resume his medical career in cancer research. Instead, in what turned out to be a stroke of luck for the BOEC, Aris was granted a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Fellowship at the University of Colorado leading to an extended stay in the Centennial State. But it wasn’t until 1974 when he moved to Breckenridge, and subsequently built the Breckenridge Medical Center, that Aris’ story became intertwined with the BOEC and the high mountain town of Breckenridge, Colorado.
This was when Aris Sophocles met Gene Dayton in what became the spark that lit the BOEC fire so to say. In what turned out to be a blessing in disguise, fellow BOEC co-founder Gene Dayton happened into Sophocles’ medical clinic one day in 1975 and two ended up talking at length about this grand idea called the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. Gene had already been running a ski mountaineering school in Breckenridge at this point, so it was only natural that the two teamed up to turn this “good idea” into reality.
“Gene said to me, ‘This place is so beautiful, we need to make it available to everyone,’” Sophocles recounts. “And that rang true to me, Gene and a few others, including the Breckenridge Town Board. This started the process of what you see today.”
“Doc pj,” Aris and Gene Dayton in 2016
So the “good idea” was born and the wheels were set in motion. But a few things had to initially happen. First, the Town Board agreed to a 25-year lease of 36 acres of land at the F&D Placer which today is home to BOEC’s Wilderness Program. Second, the organization’s first grant came in from Charles “Chuck” Froelicher who headed the Gates Family Foundation at the time. According to Sophocles, the initial request was for $7,500, but when Mr. Froelicher was invited up to the site he seemed to understand immediately what Sophocles and Dayton were asking for was definitely doable.
“His reaction was, ‘If you two are going to ask for $7,500, you might as well ask for $75,000,’” Sophocles remembers. “This is one of my fondest BOEC memories, and I don’t think any other site (F&D Placer) would have had that impact.”
Both of these fortunate circumstances allowed the nonprofit to get started with official operations at the F&D Placer, but the momentum had just begun. Famed ski pioneer Olaf Pederson caught wind of the endeavor and immediately joined the duo to bring “Ski for Light” from Norway to the BOEC, making the BOEC the first program in the United States to teach Nordic – and eventually alpine – skiing to visually impaired athletes. Adaptive skiing became the nucleus but now the stage was set for both summer and winter programming for clients with disabilities, both physical and developmental. Aris and Gene had planted the roots for something very, very special for many years to come.
“Aris served as Chairman of the Board for decades, contributed so much financially and from his heart, and really helped give the BOEC its legs,” says Dayton. “Myself, Aris and Olav have been soul brothers from the start.”
And it’s that “soul” that is ingrained into the very core of the BOEC from its humble beginnings that makes it so special. When asked what his favorite thing about the BOEC is, Aris is quick to point to the humanity and compassion (i.e. it’s soul) that was present within all those involved.
Dr. Aris Sophocles during the early days of BOEC Programming
Once the soul of the BOEC seeped its way into the fabric of the Breckenridge community, there was – and is – no stopping it. With Aris’ help, fundraising and community support has enabled the BOEC to provide millions of dollars of scholarships over the years to clients who could not afford to participate otherwise. He has helped to streamline a process where administrative overhead is low enough that nearly 85% of funds raised and in-kind support goes directly into programming and has contributed to the establishment of a culture in which the BOEC has many staff members who stay with the organization for many years. All of this led to the BOEC to become a leader in the industry, developing many of the adaptive sports techniques and equipment being used by similar organizations around the world, and devising policies and procedures that serve as models in the experiential education community.
“The BOEC is a lean, creative, and very dedicated organization,” he says. “That makes it unique and special in any industry.”
In the 44+ years since its launch, Dr. Sophocles has taken on many important roles including as a volunteer, chairman and board member to name just a few. But it’s the correlation between his medical career and what the BOEC offers that gives him such a unique perspective on things.
“Medical practice is service and problem solving with a touch of empathy,” he says. “Those three things are at the heart of what we do at the BOEC. With my medical practice and with the BOEC, perseverance was important. It is amazing what one can do by sticking with an occupation or project for a long time. With medicine it was 50 years; with the BOEC 44 years. In that time I had more than 140,000 patient visits and trained over 800 medical and physician assistant students. In its time, the BOEC has taught and hosted probably twice as many students and trained just as many interns.”
Aris signing his retirement transition agreement in June 2020
That’s a whole lot of people that have been touched by Sophocles and the BOEC over the years, yet Aris is the first one to point to the BOEC – and not himself – as generous, caring and capable. Well, we all know that the two go hand-in-hand as those that know him personally might just happen to use those exact words to describe him.
“It is unique and everyone it touches is made better,” he says. “Our students achieve new levels of confidence, skill and joy. Our volunteers and staff members grow immeasurably from their work. Our board benefits from its involvement. Our donors/supporters benefit from the knowledge that their donations are going to such a good cause. It’s remarkable how transformative the BOEC experience is for everyone involved.”
The self-proclaimed music lover and dancer chokes up when he speaks of the BOEC and that’s what makes this gentleman so darn special. He has put his heart, soul and many years of his life into the organization, and now that he is recently retired he doesn’t see an end to his involvement anytime soon. In fact, he even wants to be a volunteer on a summer river trip when things return to normal after COVID-19. In the eyes of the BOEC this is what true heroes are made of. Modest heroes at that. Again, Dr. Sophocles is quick to point to others when asked about the organization’s success.
“I have tried not to interfere with our staff so they can do their jobs,” he says. “I have also tried to support fundraising by constantly thinking about how we can obtain support for our mission. And I have tried to facilitate what our board does. They are so generous and competent. So in short, when you have a great staff and board, stay out of their way.”
In addition to listening to music, dancing, golfing, fishing, skiing, carpentry and spending time with his grown children, Sophocles still likes to keep his head in the adaptive game. He likes to visit other adaptive programs to learn from them and meet with BOEC graduates to listen to their stories that enable him to reminisce about the good old days when the BOEC was just a “good idea.” Talk about perseverance. In fact, he even has a vision for the next 10 years.
Aris and his wife, Suzanne, pose at BOEC’s Grand Opening Celebration in 2019
“Stability, modest growth, outreach to other programs like ours, and support of our graduates who are working in these programs,” he says when thinking about his wish list. “Ultimately I would like development of our endowment to insure the continued existence of the BOEC for generations to come.”
Spoken like a true hero, one can now see “the power of a good idea” that has come to fruition and is gaining momentum every day. To illustrate how near and dear the BOEC is to his heart, Aris even goes so far to say, “The BOEC is one of my children, the oldest of three, and I love it!”
Right back at you Dr. Sophocles. Your vision, dedication and determination will forever be ingrained in the history of the BOEC. And for that we could not be more thankful! Here’s to many more years of the BOEC-Aris Sophocles story.