FRIDAY FOCUS: New Leader Takes Reins of Teton County Search & Rescue Foundation

Keegan Young brings nonprofit experience, passion for mountains to the organization’s next chapter

Keegan Young, with an extensive and diverse background in the nonprofit sector, is the new  executive director of the Teton County Search & Rescue Foundation in Jackson Hole. (Courtesy photo from Teton County Search & Rescue Foundation)

By Melissa Thomasma

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This story was updated with a correct date on December 22, 2023 as of 10:30 a.m. Mountain 

As snow begins to accumulate in the mountains around Jackson Hole, the 39 members of Teton County Search & Rescue are gearing up for the busiest time of their year. Last winter saw over 50 individual rescue missions and 70 lives saved, according to the latest Rescue Report,

The volunteer organization, which operates under the authority of the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, is supported by the Teton County Search & Rescue Foundation — a nonprofit launched in 2012 with an annual operating budget of $1.3 million. 

In November, Keegan Young, 53, became executive director of the foundation. A native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, Young holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Oklahoma State University and has a lengthy list of nonprofit leadership credentials, including executive director of the Tulsa Zoo, development director of the American Alpine Club and CEO of the Colorado Mountain Club. As a volunteer firefighter in Golden, Colorado during the COVID-19 pandemic, he developed an expanded appreciation of frontline rescue work.

The Wyoming Truth  spoke with Young about what’s on the horizon for the foundation. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

What drew you to your new position?

Young: I’ve been in nonprofit work for about two and a half decades. I was with the Tulsa Zoo for a number of years and really found that passion for conservation, education and getting kids outside. I also really got into mountain climbing and rock climbing, so we spent a lot of time driving to Colorado. 

At the Tulsa Zoo, we were raising money for a sea lion exhibit — one of those typical raise money and then go run a marathon kind of things — so we all came out here and we climbed the Grand Teton with Exum Mountain Guides. The next year, I somehow convinced [my fiancé] Brooke that a great idea would be to come out and climb the Grand. And then we got married the next day. The Tetons really made an impression on Brooke, too. 

Driven by a passion for climbing and mountaineering, Keegan Young has tackled summits all around the globe. In 2017, his third trip to the Himalayas, he climbed Pumori against the backdrop of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak. (Courtesy photo from Keegan Young)

I think what I’m getting at is: definitely a path led me here that I didn’t see over the horizon. I’m just thrilled to death where all the pieces have come together. I’m humbled, I’m grateful to be here — not only the organization, which is phenomenal, but the community. 

What role does Teton County Search & Rescue play in an outdoorsy community?

Young:  It’s an essential service for saving lives, and it meets people where they are on their worst day, like any first responders. But search and rescue is very unique in that here in the United States, it’s all volunteer work and the training is highly specialized. I was involved in a lot of search and rescues in the backcountry with the fire department [in Colorado]. But we’re in an extreme environment here in the Tetons, and things can go wrong at any second. And I’ve had things go wrong. I’ve lived a life of mountain craft the last many years, and I’m very aware we can do our best to prepare, to plan and Mother Nature has her own idea. 

Tell me about your agenda for the foundation’s next chapter.

Young: My agenda right now is listening and learning. First and foremost with the team, the foundation board, our wonderful donors — working closely with staff and starting to understand the dynamics and the needs and what I can personally bring both as a contributor, a manager and a leader. I certainly will evolve ideas very quickly, I’m sure. But the first step is not to get ahead of myself with assumptions, but to hear what needs are both short- and long-term and then do my best to bring my experience, and to connect — we can bring so much talent here in Teton County together — to help resolve issues or advance the mission and improve lives. 

Any challenges so far?

The foundation recently acquired a dedicated rescue helicopter — the first in the state. The custom-designed airship arrived in October 2023 and has already flown its first rescue mission. (Courtesy photo from Teton County Search & Rescue Foundation)

Young: For me personally, it’s that knowledge gap, that learning curve. I just wish I could sit down and plug the matrix in and know everything all at once. But what I’d miss out [on] then is all the wonderful people I’ve been meeting with and getting to know — even though you’re meeting people professionally and trying to learn, you’re getting an opportunity to connect with people personally. And that’s pretty great, especially in a town of this size. I’ve not lived in a town of this size, and it’s remarkable. 

The foundation raised $7.25 million for a dedicated rescue helicopter that arrived in October. Has it flown any missions?

Young: Yes. . . .  A paraglider had an accident trying to fly off Snow King. The team went up and did a short haul, and were able to bring them down there to the ball fields at the base. It was really exciting for me, because I could watch most of it from here at the office. So I got to play fanboy for a couple of hours.

What do you wish more people understood about search and rescue?

Young: Number one, volunteers give of their time to take care of their neighbors, whether they know them or not. That comes from a deep sense of community pride and commitment. I’ve always been enamored with volunteers. First responders, search and rescue volunteers, that’s amped up a bit. They’re in a class of their own, and it’s very special. 

Like with a lot of things, you see the rescues, they can be high profile. But the amount of specialized training in the background is enormous. The volunteers here put in over 7,200 hours in the six-month period between December 1, 2022, and May 31, 2023. About half of that was for rescues and half of that was for training. It’s a tremendous amount of time.  . . .

The second thing is, they can’t do it in a vacuum. They need the community to not only reap the rewards, but contribute in support of these teams. Whether they’re your neighbor and they just need a warm thank you, or if they’re fundraising to get resources they need, or if you’d like to volunteer yourself — these are all important components. Like many other things, it takes an entire community to make something like this happen. 

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