On an average day, you’ll probably find Kelley outside. Whether she’s hiking, working in the garden or teaching local school children proper trail etiquette, Kelley enjoys spending time outdoors, especially in Colorado where it’s sunny most days of the year. Working at High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC) is the perfect fit for her personally, and professionally. Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Kelley graduated from Illinois State University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and minored in peace and conflict resolution studies and environmental studies. With her great love of the outdoors, she moved to Colorado in 2013 to hike, climb, ski, run and spend time in the mountains. Shortly after her big move, she began volunteering at HPEC, and a few months later it turned into a permanent position. What started as a smaller role coordinating volunteers and maintaining the gardens and nursery, has now expanded into something much larger. Kelley does everything from organizing community programs, running the gift store and coordinating hundreds of volunteers for various events throughout the year. Of course, she still finds time to get her hands dirty in the gardens, which is a huge component of the HPEC. Every year the center hosts an annual plant sale around Mother’s Day. As one of their biggest events, it’s Kelley’s personal favorite! With live music, local food trucks, informational booths from HPEC’s partners, and friends gathering together it always makes for a fun day. Many of the plants for sale are ones that Kelley has lovingly grown. From seed to plant, for Kelley, it’s almost like raising children and watching them go out into the world. So, if you buy a plant from Kelley, make sure you’re taking care of it! Kelley’s favorite plant? Rocky Mountain penstemon. Yes, even plant parents have favorites.
As popular as the plant sale is, oddly the most popular event at the High Plains Environmental Center is one they never really planned for: the arrival of the barn owls and their babies. For the last 10 years, a new pair of owls makes their home in HPEC’s barn to have their owlets, and it has become quite the event bringing attention locally and nationally to HPEC. Viewing this as an excellent opportunity for the community to experience nature at its finest, HPEC put solar panels on the barn and installed cameras (before the owls arrived) so they could live stream the nest. It’s hugely popular, and people love stopping by to watch the live steam as the owlets hatch and grow. In case you were wondering, HPEC doesn’t name the owls, but there is a group on Facebook that named the six owlets after candy bars last year. And if you want to take home your own owlet, the gift shop sells stuffed animal baby owls you can affectionately call Snickers or Milky Way too. As no surprise, the owl stuffed animals are by far the most popular item in the shop (and yes, they are for adults too). The environmental center at Centerra is a living laboratory for wildlife and plants. They own and manage 275-acres of habitat intentionally designed and maintained to provide connectivity between plants, animals and people. The center has actively worked to create a space for people who live, work or visit Centerra to interact with nature whether they’re exploring on their own or participating in one of the many educational programs. HPEC features walking trails, a community garden for residents at The Lakes, a demonstration garden, orchards, expansive wildlife space, classrooms and so much more. It definitely keeps Kelley busy, but she’s always looking to do more to continue growing the center. In fact, 2018 will bring huge developments for HPEC. One of their biggest projects to date is the Wild Zone, which they are developing in collaboration with a graduate student from Colorado State University. It’s an area specially designed for kids to do what they do best—be kids! In a safe space, with little structure or adult supervision, kids can explore the great outdoors. They can run, get their toes wet or build a fort, and use their imaginations to connect with nature. The Wild Zone is just the beginning of Kelley’s future plans. HPEC staff is working to create something for everyone where they can spend time outside all day. They’re especially focused on developing the gardens, including the creation of a medicine wheel garden that will educate people on how to use plants the Plains tribes used for medicinal, edible and ceremonial purposes. And, of course, their programs will continue to grow with expanded classroom space, inside and outside. The HPEC team may be small (it’s only Kelley, Executive Director, Jim Tolstrup, and Land Steward, Evan Casey) but that certainly doesn’t stop them from always striving to do more for the community. When Kelley’s not working, you may see her around HPEC’s trails, or some other trail in Colorado. It’s a passion she loves to share with the kids from
High Plains School who visit for field trips. Kelley recently worked with kindergartners to teach them the rules of the trail, what it means to be a good citizen and their role in protecting our environment. Walking around the trails and seeing the kids’ excitement when they connect with the awesomeness of the great Colorado outdoors really ignites her passion for continuing to educate on HPEC’s mission. When Kelley started as a volunteer, she remembers there only being a big field with High Plains Environmental Center in the middle of nowhere. At the time, they only had the barn, nursery and a small garden; since then it has grown substantially and will continue to do so. Everything that HPEC is today was just a vision, and for Kelley, it’s incredible to have been there for the past few years. Having seen and helped to plan for the opening of the beautiful new HPEC building, the addition of new gardens and spaces for the community to interact with nature, as well as the expansion of the educational programs, has truly been rewarding. You would think as an environmental non-profit HPEC would see overall development as negative, but Kelley says it’s quite the opposite. She loves that Centerra set aside space for natural habitats long ago and created HPEC to take care of it through collaboration with residents and businesses. In fact, she wishes it was something more communities would do. Looking towards the future, Kelley hopes she can be part of bringing this model to others and encourage everyone to work together to preserve the environment for generations to come.