A Conversation with Maggie Gotterer: Executive Director of Two Coyotes Wilderness School
Founded in 2000, Two Coyotes Wilderness School is a nonprofit nature mentoring organization dedicated to creating a healthier, more connected future by linking people to nature, community and their personal empowerment, with locations in Newtown, West Granby and Killingworth. We talked with Maggie Gotterer, Executive Director of Two Coyotes, about the importance of a connection to nature, giving all children access to safe outdoor spaces and their new Forest Learning Program.
How did you become so passionate about the importance of nature/ecotherapy?
I grew up in Connecticut, but was lucky enough to spend weeks every summer at a family cabin with no electricity on an island in Maine. My first real wilderness experience was a week backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas; I was hooked. I became a student guide for the Outdoor Education club at Georgetown and led backpacking trips in the D.C. area as well as at Glacier National Park, Denali State Park and in the Cascade Mountains. I made some of my closest friends (and met my husband) through that program.
I worked at farm-based summer camps, including New Pond Farm in Redding, where scholarships are provided to children from Danbury, Norwalk and Bridgeport to live on the farm all week. I volunteered at Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, at their Hero’s Journey program for teens that have overcome serious illnesses and spend the week camping in the woods, facing challenges they never thought they were capable of. These experiences showed me the outdoors as a place where children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds could thrive and grow.
What was your journey to becoming Executive Director of Two Coyotes?
I moved to Bridgeport after college and spent five years working for a nonprofit where I ran programs to increase access to healthy, local foods in low-income communities across the country. I then spent three years working with community-based organizations that are making Bridgeport a healthier, more economically viable and livable city for its residents. This gave me incredible hands-on experience helping small organizations develop the capacity and strategic framework to grow sustainably while addressing systemic harm in their community. When I found out about the Executive Director position at Two Coyotes, it was the perfect time to harness the skills I gained over the years and apply it to a field I am passionate about.
How is Two Coyotes different from other nature-based programs and schools?
In the last 19 years, we have honed our innovative and transformative programs as the school has grown to employ 34 part-time instructors providing long-term mentorship to more than 800 students (birth to 17) through school year, weekend, child and caregiver, rites of passage and summer camp programs. We are committed to ensuring that Two Coyotes programming is accessible, welcoming and inclusive of all children and families. Our mentors help children understand who they are, what their gifts are and how to bring them to the world. We believe this work is essential to creating a healthier, more connected future.
What needs to happen to bring more people back to awareness of the importance of the natural world in their individual lives/experience?
Experiential learning in a natural environment is a powerful way to cultivate a set of habits or ways of thinking that you can bring with you into the rest of your life—because it doesn’t end when you leave that program. I think the most important thing we can do is to notice how the natural world shows up, wherever we are, every day. It can be noticing the birds and the bugs in a city backyard, smelling blooming trees on the street, or feeling the breeze while walking to your car. Noticing—raising your awareness, opening your senses—builds a connection between you and the land. You can take that with you wherever you go.
What was the biggest surprise you’ve experienced so far about Two Coyotes?
I had my first child in September, two months after starting my job at Two Coyotes. I knew I would be excited to bring her outdoors when she got older, but when we joined our Coyote Pups program in Newtown this spring, I was surprised to see how powerful the connection is at such a young age. All her senses are activated, taking in everything around her. I’m surprised by how much I’ve learned from her already about how to connect with nature.
What gets you most excited about the work that you do?
I get most excited when I spend time in the field with my staff, watching them mentor the children in our programs. Every day they have a loose outline for what they might accomplish, but that might entirely change when they happen upon a dead animal and turn it into a conversation about death and mourning; or cross a set of tracks and guide the students in picking up clues as to who left them behind; or see a conflict emerge between two students and pause to engage in peacemaking, then play a game to bring unity back to the group.
Which elements of the work frustrate you?
What frustrates me most are the systemic barriers that prevent children from all communities in Connecticut from accessing and having a deep relationship with nature. If we believe that nature connection is our birthright, and that catching frogs, muddy knees and exploring wild places are essential to growing up strong and healthy, and if we believe that long-term nature mentoring can help children to thrive and navigate the many stages of their lives, then our mission is even more urgent for children who lack easy access to safe and welcoming outdoor play spaces due to issues of structural inequality and racism. In the future, I hope to see at Two Coyotes a student body and staff more reflective of the true diversity that we have in this state.
What do you most want Natural Awakenings’ readers to understand about Two Coyotes?
We have a strong community that has developed over the years around our homeschool programs in Newtown and Granby, and we are growing a new community in Killingworth as well. We saw those programs were also attracting children whose parents chose to take them out of public school one day a week and bring them to Two Coyotes to offer a different learning environment. In response to this growing interest, we launched the Forest Learning Program in Newtown this year and will expand it to Granby in the fall. When students are with us in the woods, we can cultivate an intrinsic love for learning and emotional intelligence that they bring back to the traditional classroom environment. We’re also excited to provide programming directly in partnership with public schools.
For more information about Two Coyotes Wilderness School, call 203-843-3112 or visit TwoCoyotes.org. See community resource guide listing, page 64.