40 Years of Helping Individuals With Disabilities
DU alumnus is co-founder of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center
University of Denver alumnus Aris Sophocles (MBA ’83, JD ’90) celebrated the 40th birthday of his first child this fall — not his son or his daughter, he explains, but the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) in Breckenridge, Colo., which Sophocles helped found in 1976.
“We knew there were people everywhere that we wanted to share that beautiful place with, and we decided to make Breckenridge — its wilderness areas, its ski slopes — available to everyone, regardless of their physical abilities,” he says. “We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”
Sophocles was a young doctor who had just opened the Breckenridge Medical Center — the town’s first such facility — when he joined forces with former Outward Bound instructor Gene Dayton in the early 1970s to start the BOEC. The school now offers skiing, hiking, rafting, ropes courses and other activities to more than 2,200 children and adults annually at locations in Breckenridge and nearby Keystone, Colo. It serves individuals with disabilities and diseases including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, autism, Down syndrome, hemophilia, mental illness and traumatic brain injury.
“For many of them, it’s liberating,” Sophocles says of program participants. “Many don’t get a chance to go out and do sports. This takes them to a new level. They learn some skills, whether it be skiing or river rafting, and they develop a new confidence in what they’re capable of doing. It just opens a world for them.”
The center’s ongoing success is thanks in large part to its internship program, which trains college students and others to work with program participants. Many BOEC interns have gone on to careers in adaptive outdoor education and therapeutic recreation.
“The internship programs, which last roughly 12 weeks, enable people to learn how to do either winter or summer programming and to work with people from all disabilities,” Sophocles says. “Right from the beginning we decided that we were going to train people to do this work and send them out to other parts of the country. We even have one of our graduates in Japan doing this work now.”
Forty years after helping start the BOEC, Sophocles is still on its board and is still a volunteer ski instructor, despite a busy medical practice that takes him from his home in Boulder to his office in Denver five days a week. It was his medical career that brought Sophocles to DU in the 1980s to study business.
“One of the things that happened while I was in Breckenridge was that the medical center got really busy,” he says. “I soon realized I didn’t have the business skills that I needed to run a busy medical center, and so I asked a friend how he got his business training. He told me about the executive MBA program that he attended at DU, and I signed up for it.”
Sophocles commuted to Denver one day a week for more than two years to take classes in economics, accounting, business math, marketing, finance and more. “We learned so much,” he says, “and I was able to take that back to the Breckenridge Medical Center and help develop the systems to make it a sound business, and do the same with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.”
Shortly thereafter, intrigued by a business law class he took while in the MBA program, Sophocles returned to the University to pursue a law degree.
“That was a wonderful education,” he says. “That was a chance to learn American history through its rules, and a little English history as well. And for a physician, it was really interesting. The interface between law and medicine is rich with issues and history and ideas. There’s insurance law, there’s tort law, there’s antitrust law — there are so many areas that relate to both physicians and attorneys.”
Although he never practiced as an attorney, Sophocles used his law training to serve as a testifying and nontestifying expert in the defense of physicians in court cases in Colorado and other states. He has helped defend more than 100 primary care physicians over the years.
Sophocles expects to retire from law and medicine in 2017, but he plans to continue working with the BOEC as long as he can. Currently he is helping head a capital campaign to improve the center’s campus and facilities and to increase the scholarship fund for program participants.
“I see a long future for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center,” he says, “and I hope the capital campaign will enable us to do a better job for our students, our staff and for those internship graduates in other communities.”