In 2018, after the 13-year Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) executive director retired, a new era began when current Executive Director Sonya Norris was hired to take over control of the 46-year-old organization. Sonya, who is celebrating her four-year anniversary with the BOEC this month, has as unique a story on her path to the BOEC as the individual herself.
Sonya and her husband uprooted and left their Canadian homeland in 1992 to pursue exciting career opportunities, only to arrive in Chicago for a year before moving to Morgan Hill, California for another nine years. After those 10 years, their final move, now with a 4-year-old son, was to Colorado Springs, where she stayed for the next 15 years.
Sonya’s dedication and commitment to making a difference in the lives of others began in high school where she taught swimming to children with Down Syndrome. In the years that followed, Sonya worked with various organizations that offered sport as a way for others to realize their own potential. In 2004, a chance meeting led to a new position overseeing national team programs for the US Paralympic Team with the then, United States Olympic Committee, now known as the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). After a few years focusing on the elite athlete side of things, she found a particular niche within the USOPC and transitioned from the national stage to a more grassroots level as Associate Director of Paralympic Programs focused on helping organizations across the United States develop and grow their own adaptive sports programs. During her time there, Sonya worked closely with both small and large organizations across the country, helping them increase access to adaptive sports opportunities at the local level for people with disabilities.
Raising funds for Children’s Hospital Colorado in annual Courage Classic.
After a decade with the USOPC, in 2014, Sonya took a position with Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation as the director of events and corporate programs. During her four years there, she was responsible for managing all fundraising events, community fundraising initiatives, and donor relations in hopes of raising funds and awareness for the hospital’s expansion of services in Southern Colorado. It’s her experiences at these two amazing organizations – and working with the dedicated individuals committed to making a difference in the lives of others – that prepared her for what was to come next.
Skiing with John Register, Paralympian at Ski Spectacular in Breckernidge.
A former colleague from the USOPC sent Sonya the job description for the BOEC executive director role and encouraged her to apply. Apply she did, and a few months later she and her husband Mark were packing their bags in preparation for the move to Breckenridge so Sonya could continue her passionate work in the adaptive sports arena as the new executive director of the BOEC.
“I’ve spent the majority of my professional life working in adaptive sport both at the elite level and at the local, community level,” says the avid uphill and downhill skier. “I feel strongly that every person should have equal access to sport at any level, whether it’s at their local community center, at school, or while on vacation with family. The people who come to the BOEC to learn to ski or snowboard, to challenge themselves on our ropes course, or to have fun out on the river, all face unique challenges. Seeing the smiles and joy on the faces of those who come to BOEC makes it all worthwhile.”
Sonya (bottom left) with the USOPC in Beijing in 2018.
Bill Gillilan, who became BOEC’s Chairman of the Board around the same time Sonya was hired, adds, “Sonya has proven repeatedly that the BOEC staff made a terrific selection. Sonya is the best of the best! She is a leader who listens to and respects her staff’s ideas, who mentors each and every team member, and who has selected key additions to the team who, together with their teammates, have continued BOEC’s quest to constantly improve the experiences of its participants and its financial, marketing, development and field operations.”
It seems that the long-time adaptive sports professional had found a new home at the BOEC. The organization was in the perfect position to grow in new and exciting ways, but in order to do that, Sonya recognized right away the importance of increasing fundraising capacity and placing more of an emphasis on marketing and communications. Once again, this was the perfect position to be in as her previous experience set her up for success in those two areas. Knowing and recognizing how critical it is to have programs like the BOEC was an important precursor to achieving just that.
Being serenaded on her birthday by BOEC co-founder Gene Dayton.
“Having programs which are focused on providing access to both winter and summer outdoor activities for the same reason you and I do it is the goal,” she states. “It’s for the fun, the challenge, the adventure, and for both our mental and physical health. Knowing how important it is for individuals who face barriers to participation to have the opportunities we all take for granted makes it easy for me to articulate what we do and the importance of our mission to partners, participants, donors, and so many others.”
As Sonya stepped into her new role, the Securing the Future Capital Campaign had just been successfully completed, where she inherited a brand new BOEC headquarters with much-needed staff housing and program warehouse space. So the timing was perfect to tackle head-on the aforementioned fundraising and marketing challenges she faced. In the three years since, the BOEC has increased contribution revenues by 28%, enabling the organization to take care of its other needs.
Sonya says, “Increasing our contribution revenue has allowed us to put more of a focus on critical needs such as staff compensation and much-needed infrastructure repairs and improvements, including the replacement of a number of vehicles in the BOEC fleet, a new deck on the Griffith Lodge and a new roof on the intern cabin.”
With marketing and fundraising successes now in hand after a few years at the helm, Sonya is now free to focus more on the day-to-day operations of the 46-year-old organization. Involved in all of it to some degree, she points to juggling many different aspects of the BOEC as it moves quickly from season to season, event to event, and priority to priority, as the most challenging part of her job. Right now, she’s in the middle of a strategic planning process that has her mired in another balancing act.
“Some decisions are easy to make and others are more complex and need discussion, planning, and consensus,” she says. “Right now with the strategic planning process, I am trying to support the effort in a way that ensures everyone feels engaged and valued. Juggling priorities, concerns, and ideas is not always easy, but it’s a challenge that I’m excited about as the outcome will hopefully guide the organization in a very positive direction for the next five to 10 years.”
Now in her fourth year at the BOEC, in true Sonya Norris fashion, she is quick to deflect praise from herself onto the staff. She points to a team that includes a mix of longtime, experienced and talented people and new team members who have brought new ideas, passion, and excitement to the organization. A team with priorities that makes up Sonya’s favorite thing about the BOEC.
Sonya speaks at BOEC’s annual Banff Film Festival fundraiser.
“The priority of every single team member, no matter what role they play, is our participants,” says Sonya. “It’s clear that we’re all in this for the same reason – to provide access to the things we all love and value. We are in the business of providing access to FUN in the great outdoors for people who might not otherwise have the opportunity. What could be better than that?”
Better than that might be that some of those who founded the BOEC over 46 years ago are still on the Board of Directors. Better than that is, there are others, including donors, who have been supporting the BOEC for decades through generous annual contributions and other amazing support. And better than that are partners such as The Town of Breckenridge and Blue River Sports, who have been supporting the non-profit for many decades, illustrating how the BOEC is a valued and important part of the Breckenridge community. But, “better than that” seems to be all relative when it comes to the BOEC these days.
“It’s clear that there are a lot of people who feel very strongly about the BOEC and what this organization represents,” says the executive director.
And what does this organization represent? That’s easy. It represents exactly what brought Sonya here in the first place. A place where anyone and everyone can just be themselves while experiencing what most of us take for granted … the great outdoors. Both groups and individuals come back year after year because of this and the incredible programs we offer. Leave it to Sonya, though, to once again defer to the staff as the face of the organization.
An after work mountain bike ride with the BOEC team.
“Our team members are all kind, patient, passionate, experienced, and above all, very dedicated to those we serve,” she says with a smile. “We have probably the best adaptive ski program in the country and one of the most unique outdoor education programs for people with disabilities in the world. There’s no other program like the BOEC, anywhere.”
When she isn’t in full-BOEC mode, Sonya stays extremely active with skiing, road and mountain biking, yoga, and hikes with her “grand dog” Moose. And, “when all the stars align” and she has some rare, uninterrupted time, she admits to enjoying some binge-watching of a favorite show to her heart’s content. One thing that many don’t know is that Sonya also loves to run and has always considered herself a runner first. In fact, she’s completed 15 marathons, countless half marathons, and even qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon and the New York City marathon. When asked whose job she would like to take on for a day if she could, she says “I would love to be a river guide for a day (or a week)!”
“I’d like to have the knowledge and expertise that our river guides have,” she continues. “To know how to travel safely down a river, how to set up the boat and what rivers to go to. There is so much more to this than I ever thought and I’m continually in awe of the knowledge they have.”
Sonya (second from right) poses with Team Semper Fi at Keystone Ski Resort.
Well, some might say that they are in awe of the knowledge and expertise that you have, Sonya. You’ve made amazing strides for the BOEC in your short time here and if the past tells us anything, you will make more positive decisions in the future.
“Without giving anything away, I would like to see this organization continue to flourish and grow,” she says with a confident smile. “And wouldn’t it be great to see the next executive director of the BOEC come from among the very talented team we already have?”
Stay tuned for more in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.