With places such as Mount Baker, Galbraith, and the Chuckanut Mountains located right in our backyard, proximity to nature is a major perk for many North Sound residents. However, outdoor recreation isn’t readily accessible for all community members. Vamos Outdoors Project is a Bellingham-based nonprofit working to change this.
Studies show that Latinx individuals are underrepresented in data for both city and national park visitors. As of 2019, 9.8% of Whatcom County residents were estimated to be Hispanic and Latinx– but these individuals comprised just 0.4% of visitors to Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The USDA Forest Service’s most recent survey shows that 95.2% of visitors were white.
Vamos Outdoors Project addresses this gap by eliminating the factors that impede access to outdoor activities. They offer programming and mentorship for Latinx, migrant, and multilingual youth in both Whatcom and Skagit counties, and all activities are free of cost.
“Access costs a lot of money for some activities, and Vamos provides transportation, food, and all of the gear,” says team member Jaime Friedrich. “We have all the backpacks, all the sleeping bags, all the raincoats. All these things are barriers that we erase before we even get outside.”
Regular programs include backpacking, mountain biking, swimming, climbing, after-school experiences, and even bilingual environmental education. Though mountain biking is arguably Vamos’ most well-known program, team member Andy Basabe notes that swimming is the most requested activity among participating families.
Outdoor education and recreation promotes good physical and mental health as well as environmental stewardship. These outcomes are positive, but the impact of Vamos’ work goes far beyond activities alone.
“Vamos isn’t just about the environment, outdoors, and climate change,” says team member Meriel Kaminsky. “Of course the connection with the land, connection to the outdoors– that’s very important. But it’s about the people, building community, and building relationships.”
In addition to its programs, representational mentorship is a major component of Vamos’ work. The organization connects students with mentors that have similar lived experiences and cultural backgrounds. As a result, youth are able to see themselves reflected in Vamos’ staff, share stories, and seek support. They are also able to potentially envision themselves pursuing higher education or following a career path they may not have otherwise considered.
“Personally, I share a lot of similar background to the youth that we work with,” says team member Clara Artiaga Martinez. “It’s hard to visualize if there’s no one that looks like you in your surroundings, or in the community, doing these sorts of things. Providing students with these mentors opens the door to their creativity, their possibilities, and their ability to just dream.”
Students get excited about the activities Vamos facilitates; for example, Martinez recounts the recent glee of a young girl who learned to bike without training wheels despite originally doubting herself.
“[The student was] falling asleep in the car, but she was like, ‘I’m so excited for next week! I can’t wait!’ She has training wheels at home but she’s so excited because she knows she doesn’t need them anymore,” says Martinez. “Just seeing that joy is so important.”
Regardless of the activity itself, students are often eager to participate in Vamos programs because of the connections they make with others. Basabe cites Vamos’ 2021 community bike day as an example of the program’s ability to bring people together.
Vamos serves three housing communities on the north side of Bellingham, and each typically receives services from organizations and nonprofits on a separate basis. However, individuals across complexes were able to come together at one site for the community bike day event.
“A lot of those three housing sites share family members— there’s brothers and sisters and cousins that live across those sites, but they receive services independently,” Basabe says. “It’s been cool to connect those families through programming they all share.”
Vamos’ services have expanded substantially since the advent of COVID-19. The organization now serves more than 200 participants and partners with over a dozen community organizations, three school districts, and the Northwest Educational Services District.
To support the work and continued growth of Vamos Outdoors Project, donations can be made online via their website. Outdoor recreation is just the beginning: By removing barriers to access, Vamos is a part of forming a community that’s equitable, supportive, and lasting.