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ConnectVA Spotlight: David Kunnen, Executive Director, Blue Sky Fund

Tell us about yourself.

My name is David Kunnen and I’m the Executive Director of Blue Sky Fund. I’m a recovering tax accountant who has worked in the nonprofit space in Richmond since 2005. I served the YMCA of Greater Richmond for 10 years, took a quick 12-month detour at The American Heart Association, and have been in my current role at Blue Sky Fund since September 2016.

ABOVE: A  Blue Sky Fund Campaign video from 2017

What is the focus of your work?

Blue Sky Fund is on a mission to provide transformational opportunities for urban youth through outdoor education. Our three core programs – Explorers, Outdoor Adventure Clubs, and Outdoor Leadership Institute – provide opportunities to improve access for children in Richmond Public Schools to engaging, experiential education and enrichment opportunities that take advantage of all of the amazing outdoor assets we have in our region. If we can help increase students’ academic achievement and help develop their resilience, we are making progress towards our goals. Our region wins awards and has magazine articles written that encourage people from across the world to come here to live, work, and play, yet there are large numbers of our neighbors who don’t traditionally take advantage of all parts of our city. That’s not equitable, and we want to help change that. Only two of the elementary schools we work in are currently fully accredited by the Virginia Department of Education, and we want to do our part to help RPS meet their 2023 accreditation and strategic plan goals.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

There is so much – I could write a whole post on this. These two types of examples are always front of mind. First, it’s rewarding to see a child totally engaged in kinesthetic learning during a Blue Sky trip when sitting at their desk in the classroom and listening is a challenge for them. We regularly hear from classroom teachers that students who struggle in the traditional school setting are thriving during our field investigations. Second, our activities constantly provide new experiences for the students we serve. We see the fruits of our work when we go rock climbing and a middle school student who stared up at wall with a look on their face that is best interpreted as “you want me to do what?!” on day 1 ends up overcoming their fears and hesitations to not only become extremely proficient at the activity, but also comfortable teaching their peers.

What are some major challenges you have faced and how you handled them?

We love being outside and believe whole-heartedly in the power of nature and the outdoors as a catalyst for learning and growth. Unfortunately, it’s not always 75 degrees and sunny when we venture out. When the students’ classroom teachers complain about having to go outside, or that the weather isn’t good, or that they don’t like bugs, the children pick up on those sentiments and run with them. We have a 5-Finger Agreement that we start each program day with, and encouragement is one of the five tenets of that agreement. Our incredible staff will make sure to demonstrate for everyone who is a part of our program – children and adults alike – that we will overcome any negativity about getting outside so that we maximize our learning opportunities. Fundraising is also ultra-competitive in Richmond…but everyone reading this already knows that 🙂

What would someone be surprised to know about your organization?

We serve over 2,200 children each year. We are still a relatively young organization compared to some of our peers, and our reach often surprises people. Although we have ‘Fund’ in our name, we are not wealth managers or angel investors.

Do you have any interesting initiatives or programs on the horizon?

We are planning to double the size of our Outdoor Leadership Institute (OLI) when we recruit our next class of participants. Each year, rising 9th-12th graders are nominated to participate in this year-long program that focuses on leadership, unity, and service. We create 12-person crews who share a summer experience that includes a backpacking trip to Grayson County, a year’s worth of service projects, and the development of their own individual leadership portfolios. Until now, we have taken two crews out each year, and we will have four(!) beginning in the summer of 2019. After graduation, OLI participants come back each summer for an alumni experience. The last two years, this group has gone to Colorado and ridden their bikes 334 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC.

 

Is your organization involved in any exciting collaborations or partnerships?

Without collaborations and partnerships, our impact would be blunted. We are so grateful for our relationship with Richmond Public Schools. NextUp has created a great system for out of school time programming, and we are excited to see how working with them continues to develop. The James River Park System is always a gracious host, and keeps their parks safe and fun. The VCU Rice Rivers Center is a unique partner, since we take kids from all three of our programs there during the year. Over 35 locations throughout the region and state support our activities as host sites – to say we are fortunate to have their support is an understatement.

 

How are you leveraging ConnectVA and the Community Foundation to achieve your mission?

Our nonprofit community is very fortunate to have the resources that ConnectVA and the Community Foundation provide. Blue Sky tries to take full advantage! Our staff regularly checks and engages in the professional development opportunities offered in the Learning Center, we’ve supported teammates through ENLP, we receive many qualified and mission-minded candidates from the Job Finder, and we have even gotten rid of some old office furniture on the Item Exchange! The Community Foundation staff are always supportive and willing to answer questions about program focus and impact, and we are incredibly blessed to be the frequent recipient of Community Impact grants.

Anything else you would like to share?

On Saturday, October 27 we are hosting our 7th Annual Hike for Kids event. Participants can choose to hike 3, 8 or 14 miles through the James River Park System in downtown Richmond. The 3-mile option is very family-friendly. After hiking, enjoy food, beer, and live music at our host site (thanks Virginia War Memorial!) overlooking the river. Proceeds from the event will provide more opportunities for the children from our city’s most vulnerable communities to experience the outdoors in a meaningful way. For more information and to register, click here: https://secure.qgiv.com/event/936972/.

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