Ellen Tohn: Leading by Example

SCA Alumna, Parent and Donor

For many donors and program alumni, the introduction to SCA is often made by  someone important in their lives— a teacher, a relative, family friends. But, for two-time SCA alumna, SCA parent, and donor Ellen Tohn, it was simple serendipity. 

Ellen’s introduction to SCA came as a high school junior in 1976 after a report she gave to a local conservation group in her home town of Larchmont, New York.  After the presentation, a local leader Martha “Marty” Munzer pulled Ellen aside and encouraged her to try SCA.  “If you’re interested, we’ll sponsor you,” Ellen remembers Marty saying.  

That summer, Ellen boarded her first plane for a season of building a stone turnpike in Yosemite National Park.  On the way to Yosemite, the airline lost her luggage. Ellen’s mother’s response? “Make sure the airline gives you a toothbrush.” Ellen realized that she needed to be ready for the unexpected.

She returned to the Larchmont conservation group with a slide show about her SCA experience and went on to share this experience at SCA’s 20th Anniversary celebration. But, this was only the beginning of her adventure in conservation.  

After high school graduation, Ellen headed with SCA to Olympic National Forest for her second summer of conservation service.  The previous year’s trail-building and team experience was empowering, but the autonomy of serving on a Sherpa team was even more liberating.  Ellen remembers the significance of making decisions about how they would deliver assigned food and supplies into the backcountry: “The first time around, you learn how to work with a group, figuring out your role,” she recalls, “Then the second time, you realize, ‘Hey, we can run this.’”   That freedom to make decisions was especially significant when they compressed four days of deliveries into two and thus got to enjoy the park!

Arriving at Cornell University the following fall, Ellen continued her dedication to conservation by working with the Cornell Outdoor Education programs, the Advisory Board for which she now co-chairs.  From leading trips and classes in the first year, Ellen went on to be co-coordinator for the entirely student run campus program.  She credits SCA with preparing her for those leadership roles. The Cornell program now includes hundreds of classes and thousands of students.   

After a decade of work related to environmental policy and earning a Masters of City Planning at MIT, Ellen started the environmental consultancy where she works today, Tohn Environmental Strategies.  Ellen credits Ms. Munzer with setting her on a path that Ellen continues to feel has tremendous value for youth and society.

 “SCA helps young people appreciate the value of service and conservation for our collective, common good, and for them as individuals.” She and her husband John Harper have passed on those values to their three sons, each of whom have completed high school national crews with SCA.   Though “all three kids are different,” Ellen points out, “SCA meets our family expectation that they do offer service, spend time in the  outdoors, and challenges themselves to grow.” 

“I make SCA a giving priority because kids need opportunities like SCA to gain confidence and engage with nature.  Whether they share my passion for environmental policy or not, SCA can help young people be attentive to different groups, whether it’s their own families, their peers, or future colleagues, employees, or collaborators.”

Ellen has a simple and emphatic solution to SCA’s challenge of having funding for only 1 of every 4 interested high school students: “If there is that much demand. We simply have to figure-out how to fund more opportunities.”