Lauren Watel ('08) Takes the Helm of her Family Foundation

Lauren Watel (’08) Takes the Helm of her Family Foundation

Author: Tamar Kupiec


Lauren Watel is not the type to just pick up, leave, and not look back. She tends relationships at each stage and place in life, and she takes care that those relationships don’t end with graduation or a new job. Lauren has donated to IslandWood every year since she graduated in 2008. It is one of the ways she stays connected to the organization that taught her to teach outdoors.


Lauren Watel as a graduate student at IslandWood, in the forest with School Overnight Program students.

Lauren Watel as a graduate student at IslandWood, in the forest with School Overnight Program students.

In 2009, Lauren found herself standing at the front of a classroom as a teacher at St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls school in the Denver area. She didn’t expect to be here. At IslandWood she had discovered a passion for informal education, and this high school biology and environmental science classroom was anything but informal. Resisting the “sage on the stage” model of instruction, she tried an experiment—she “flipped” the traditional classroom. Rather than spending valuable class time lecturing, she recorded her lectures for students to watch at home and devoted class time to conducting investigations and analyzing data right alongside her students—the way she did at IslandWood.


St. Mary’s is a small school, and Lauren taught the same students year after year. She came to understand their learning styles and found satisfaction in building on that knowledge and watching them grow. “You cared about them,” she says, “and they cared about you.” Lauren left teaching three and half years ago when she had her first child. She is still in touch with some of her students.


Today, Lauren is the vice president of her family’s Denver-based foundation. The Schlessman Family Foundation funds organizations that invest in the self-sufficiency and productivity of people struggling with poverty, illness, and other challenges. Some of these organizations she has known since childhood, and the part of her job that gets her most excited is deepening these old relationships as a foundation officer and a volunteer.


Here’s what Lauren had to say about her philanthropic relationship with IslandWood:


Why do you give to IslandWood?


I was raised with the core value of giving back to those who have given to and supported us. My family has a foundation that my great grandparents started for that exact reason. My great grandfather had worked his way from the son of a farmer to a successful business owner. He and my great grandmother were very passionate about showing their gratitude to organizations that supported them on their journey to financial success. A lifetime exposure to this ideology has instilled in me the same principle. I was taught from a young age that even a small amount of money or time is meaningful—it all adds up. It is only natural that when I look back at organizations which have supported me and helped me on my path that I think of IslandWood. Not only did the graduate program at IslandWood influence and shape my career path, but it also shaped me as a person, making me consider new perspectives and value intentional relationships. In my nonprofit management class taught by Ben Klasky there was a discussion about foundations. This caused me to delve deeper into my family foundation and learn more about the inner workings, relating those to concepts discussed in class. We considered how to maximize philanthropic impact, and today as vice president of our foundation, I found that I incorporated much of what I had learned during our strategic planning.


You invested in long-term relationships with your students and do so now with the organizations that your family foundation funds. Likewise, you have given to IslandWood every year since your graduation. How do you see your continuing relationship to IslandWood as an alum and a donor?

Lauren Watel carrying her two children while hiking in the forest.

Lauren Watel carrying her two children while hiking in the forest.


Relationships are important to me. However, to keep them vital they require upkeep and maintenance. That can take different forms. Annual giving is one concrete way that I can demonstrate my appreciation of the IslandWood experience. I want to do what I can to ensure that future students and grad students have the same experience that I did and that IslandWood’s reach continues to grow. Ideally I would visit and participate in community events, exposing my young kids to the magic of the woods. However, living in Colorado, I cannot interface with IslandWood as frequently as I would like. I have tried to bring the lessons that I learned about fostering a natural sense of wonder to our local adventures. We get down low, we try to engage our senses as we walk, and we observe and question.


What would you say to those who support IslandWood about why their gift matters?


First off I would say “thank you.” Thank you for supporting the mission and vision of this transformative organization. IslandWood impacted my life and the lives of my students, because my teaching style was undoubtedly shaped by the lessons I learned there. Consider all of the graduate students impacted by IslandWood and imagine their combined ripple effect. The act of giving back, big or small, is a way to demonstrate that you value and appreciate what the organization has given you, and by extension, your community.


Please note that this post was last updated on 3/5/2019. Some details, including job title or place of employment, may have changed since then.

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