Sharing a love of the outdoors

OPERS staff member Kathy O'Hara Ferraro organizes the popular Banff Film Festival in addition to rec classes from ballroom dancing to wilderness medicine

Kathy O'Hara Ferraro
OPERS staff member and Banff Film Festival organizer Kathy O'Hara Ferraro (photo by Chip Scheuer)

Most film-festival organizers would be horrified if hundreds of moviegoers suddenly dug out their cell phones and began to dial.

Not Kathy O'Hara Ferraro.

As organizer of UC Santa Cruz's popular Banff Film Festival, Ferraro just smiled as those filling the theater began phoning government officials after a movie about a proposed open-pit mine that could endanger a rich salmon fishery near Bristol Bay, Alaska.

"We want people to go away inspired," Ferraro says of that call-to-action moment — and also of her annual festival of adventure, environment and mountain-culture films which this year raised $20,000 to help fund the Recreation Program and UCSC Wilderness Orientation scholarships.

It's hard not to feel the same way when talking to Ferraro. Clad in jeans, scuffed running shoes, and a fleece jacket, the 56-year-old recounts stories of downhill skiing in the Sierra, of completing four marathons, of spotting bobcat and coyote in dew-draped meadows as she rides her bike to campus several days a week.

"I love new things," says Ferraro, smiling. "I love being outside and I love being physical."

Ferraro came to UCSC's Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports in 1987 — a former grocery-store cashier with a love of the outdoors and a resume that included guiding backpack trips for middle-school students and leading the well-heeled on road-bike adventures. It wasn't long before Ferraro was taking UCSC students on canoe and backpacking tours of the Grand Canyon and giving some their first taste of sleeping under a canopy of stars.

By 2002, Ferraro was running UCSC's popular Banff Film Festival series, which drew 2,000 people and screened 24 films this year.

"Kathy is one of the most personable people I've ever met," says Seana Strain, Banff World Tour coordinator. "She's not afraid to walk up to anyone and strike up a conversation. That, combined with her talent at organizing the multitude of details that come with hosting these events and her creativity, have made the shows in Santa Cruz explode in popularity."

That talent also has led Ferraro to become an indefatigable fund-raiser in the community — not only raising money for WomenCARE cancer-support group but also helping Branciforte Middle School get 30 new computers for its library.

Yet it's coordinating the scores of recreation classes offered by OPERS that takes up most of Ferraro's time. Whether it's ballroom dancing, Zumba fitness, wilderness medicine, or organizing an upcoming Magic: The Gathering trading-card tournament, her goal is to provide a place where students can make friends, find connection, and de-stress.

"Students really need a break from their busy, plugged-in world," Ferraro says. "Because they're so plugged in, many have lost that connection to nature, and nature is really healing."

Nowhere was that more evident than on a trip to the Kings River last year, following the death of a well-known student.

As they prepared for their day on the river, Ferraro says, the group solemnly gathered in a circle to share stories and thoughts of their friend who had gone on the same adventure one year before.

"That trip," says Ferraro, "provided students with a place to share their hearts."