By Ali Margo | December 21, 2015 | Culture
Terri and Tony Caine's Summit 54 is making sure every Valley student can reach for the top.
Always climbing: With college-track programs, summer programs, and sponsored scholarships, Summit 54’s Tony and Terri Caine, photographed here at their home on Wildwood Lane, have dedicated themselves to advancing education in the Roaring Fork Valley.
During his bid to climb all 54 of Colorado’s peaks over 14,000 feet in one calendar year, Internet entrepreneur Tony Caine was hiking along the saddle between Tabeguache Peak and Mount Shavano a few hundred feet below the summit when he became dizzy and lightheaded. As he continued on, his condition worsened; he began to experience vertigo and eventually couldn’t walk or stand. He had a cell phone signal and called for help. He was evacuated by helicopter six hours later.
Caine, now fully recovered from his trek, recalls sitting in an Aspen barbershop six years ago, when he was struck by inspiration to tackle the 14er project. But for him, it was about much more than climbing all those mountains. “I picked up Chris Davenport’s book [Ski the 14ers], and I thought, Maybe I should get off my butt and do something,” says Caine, 58. “I decided I would attempt to hike all the 14ers and use that as an impetus to launch Summit 54”—a nonprofit investing in Colorado education.
Caine and his wife, Terri, 55, launched Summit 54 in 2010 and hosted the first official fundraiser this past July at their Wildwood Lane home a few miles up Independence Pass. When they started the program, they donated $400,000 of their own money, which was matched dollar for dollar with a grant from the United Way Social Innovation Fund. They’ve since received grants from the Aspen Community Foundation and The Thrift Shop of Aspen. “We also received a few generous multi-year pledges from people we know personally who are also very passionate about education,” Terri says.
“Doing all the 14ers in one year, but breaking it down to one peak at a time, felt like the perfect analogy for working with students [for whom] college may seem like an insurmountable goal,” Tony says.
For Tony, dedicating himself to creating more opportunities in education for underprivileged students was a cause close to his heart. Raised in blue-collar Pittsburgh as the son of a bus driver who had dropped out of the 10th grade to support his single mother, Tony put himself through Carnegie Mellon University before going on to work for Hewlett Packard and Apple and eventually founding three tech startups (including Spyglass, the first Internet browser, acquired in a $2.5 billion stock exchange acquisition in 2000). He went on to found LJM Partners, the Chicago-based financial investment firm he still works with today.
Summit 54 has sponsored four established evidence-based programs that are aligned with its mission: PreCollegiate, which funds college scholarships for students in the Roaring Fork Valley; Summer Advantage USA, a five-week academic and life-enrichment summer program for students grades K–4 in Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs (where budget cuts eliminated funding for summer school programming); Rocky Mountain Prep, a top-performing charter school in Denver; and College Track, a national college completion program in Aurora that prepares under-served students for college, which had a 90 percent student acceptance rate at four-year institutions in 2015.
“It was important to us to make an impact in the valley, where we live,” says Terri, who spearheads Summer Advantage, the largest of the programs Summit 54 sponsors. “A lot of people who live in Aspen really aren’t aware of the need that is 20 minutes away. They don’t fully appreciate the challenges we have so close to home.”
Summer Advantage serves almost 800 students and 140 staff members, providing a well-rounded summer academic-enrichment program that includes math and literacy courses, field trips, talks from inspirational speakers, and meals. “We would love to help strengthen the Roaring Fork School District as an example of what can be done in other rural school districts,” Terri says. Acquiring hard data to inspire change at a state level is an integral part of Summit 54’s mission.
The program costs roughly $1 million per year and is run with very low overhead; Summit 54 has only one employee, program manager Nicole Tarumianz, who is paid hourly. Terri is very hands-on with the program, visiting program sites almost daily to assist students and staff. “Parents come up to me all the time and share the stories about their kids,” she says. “There are tons of success stories.”
And though he never climbed alone again, Tony went on to summit all of those 54 peaks. “Even if you have challenges, you can’t quit,” he says. “If you break it down one step at a time, then it becomes attainable. The ambition of Summit 54 is to work with students to put that goal in place.”
Photography by Shawn O’Connor