Call of nature: TUSD and UA launch campaign for Cooper Center expansion

Over the last 56 years, more than 130,000 students have explored nature in the Tucson Mountains at the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, an outdoor educational camp just north of Gates Pass that offers programs through a partnership between the Tucson Unified School District and the University of Arizona College of Education.

Now the Cooper Center, located at 5403 W. Trails End Road, is launching a $500,000 capital campaign to pay for a new facility master plan that's estimated to cost up to $4 million.

Last October's renewal of the intergovernmental agreement between TUSD and the UA extended management of the center by both parties through 2039 and added provisions allowing for fundraising for new facilities

Construction of the master plan's first phase will start spring 2021 by replacing the 45-year-old bathrooms, which have been the camp's limiting factor, according to director Colin Waite at a December press conference. Waite noted that a typical year sees 3,000 students only having access to four toilets and two urinals. That will increase to nine toilets, two of which will be wheelchair accessible, and three urinals.

This step, which will allow the camp to increase visitor capacity while using less water, is the first large-scale improvement at the camp since the '70s. Other water usage upgrades planned to meet these goals are: greywater systems, no-smell composting toilets developed by Watershed Management Group and rainwater harvesting. Additionally, seven new showers will allow for longer guest stays and will provide a new source of revenue for the camp from overnight rentals. Water harvesting and water use is an integral part of this opening phase and will be used with the new compost toilets to improve the vegetation around the camp. Greywater from the showers and from the hands sinks will go to growing shade trees and educational sites along trails.

It's all a part of Cooper Center's drive to make all learning hands-on, according to TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo.

"We've had conversations with teachers and with staff about pollinator gardens and growing native seeds of the Sonoran Desert, and using that is another enhancement of our educational program," Waite said.

Waite projects that the full scope of planned upgrades will be completed in the next five to seven years. This year, sleeping quarters and gathering areas will be renovated and the heating and cooling systems will upgraded. Next year, the plans call for building more indoor classroom space and improvements to the kitchen.

This first phase of construction will cost $500,000, with $225,000 raised so far from private donors alongside a $100,000 offer of matching funds from a philanthropic couple, leaving $175,000 to be raised.

"Upgrades like solar power support Camp Cooper's environmental philosophy, while improving bathrooms and showers removes an obstacle some folks had with attending," said Marguerite Samples, a teacher at TUSD's Pueblo Gardens K-8 School. "It allows for some of the 'comforts of home' while continuing to provide a genuine experience."

For groups or individuals looking to contribute to the Camp Cooper Capital Campaign visit give.uafoundation.org/cooper-center

Joe Giddens is a Pima Community College journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.

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