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Outdoor activities for children of color: Phoenix group leads the way – The Arizona Republic

From a young age, Raquel Gomez loved being outside. Her father took her biking, climbing, sledding, inline skating and swimming. At 10 years old she joined the Girl Scouts and got exposed to camping. 

But besides the thrill of sleeping outside, singing by a campfire and making s’mores, something happened in the outdoors that she never forgot. Gomez, now 35, who is Dominican and Puerto Rican, realized none of her peers looked like her. 

“Camping was kind of my first time realizing that I was the only person of color in this group, and not just in the group, but in the campsite,” Gomez said. “I realized then, in the outdoors in general, I was usually the only person of color out there.” 

That realization at a young age led her to forge to a career in youth development and promoting access to outdoor recreation for black and brown kids.

Finding a job that combined these passions wasn’t easy. So she created one. 

In the summer of 2020, Gomez founded Atabey Outdoors, a nonprofit based in Phoenix that provides free, guided outdoor adventures to Black, Indigenous and other girls of color who are 8 to 12 years old.

“When I went to look for jobs doing this, there was none that existed that combined all my passions and interests in (Phoenix),” Gomez said. “So I wanted to create a program for younger Raquel, for the girls who want to be outside with girls who look like them.”

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‘Why am I the only Black or brown girl in soccer?’ 

Gomez, who is from Connecticut, quit her job as a youth coordinator with the Boys and Girls Club of Phoenix in the summer of 2020 to focus full time on creating Atabey Outdoors. The project started in memory of her father. 

“My dad passed away the summer I was thinking about starting that organization,” Gomez said. “He was the adventurous one that took me on a lot of my outdoor experiences, so I thought it would be best to do this to honor him.” 

On many of those adventures, the same questions would pop up in her head. 

“I would ask my parents why am I the only Black or brown girl in soccer? Why am I the only Black or brown girl in Girl Scouts? And there were no answers to the questions,” she said. 

Throughout her life, Gomez sought answers to those questions and solutions to the underlying problems. 

“I don’t claim to know every reason for everybody,” Gomez said. “But as far as why I created this program, it has a lot to do with the communities that I have worked with.

“They don’t have access to outdoor adventures the same way affluent white people do. It takes money for gear. It takes transportation to get to where you need to go. And it takes knowledge knowing the skills that you need to do these outdoor adventures.” 

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Why fewer people of color visit parks

Recent demographic statistics on local, state and national park use back up Gomez’s experiences. 

A survey conducted by Arizona State Parks and Trails in 2019 and 2020 reported that visitors are overwhelmingly white. In the sample, one-fourth of the surveyed visitors to Arizona State Parks were people of color. Currently, 46% of Arizona’s population is people of color.

A 2018 survey by the National Park Service found the same dynamic. The survey of non-visitors examined the most common barriers to national park visitation across racial and ethnic groups.

These barriers included lack of transportation, expenses associated with travel and entrance fees to national parks. A substantially higher percentage of the Hispanic and African-American non-visitors surveyed cited these barriers than white non-visitors.

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What inspired the name of Atabey Outdoors

As Gomez grew older, she continued combining her love of the outdoors with her interest in helping young people. 

While studying at Old Dominion University in Virginia, Gomez worked as a camp counselor. When she lived in Chicago she worked as a rock climbing instructor.

Before moving to Phoenix four years ago, Gomez was a wilderness therapy guide in Huntington, Utah, leading kids and young adults into the backcountry, teaching them survival skills and assigning therapy homework for those experiencing issues like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

At the Boys and Girls Club of the Valley, Gomez coordinated after-school programming and summer camps. 

Gomez said she didn’t have much experience with the administrative side of running a nonprofit, but she felt that her experiences were a solid foundation on which to build her organization. She spent a lot of time indoors during the pandemic researching the pieces she needed to put in place. 

“I already had youth development programming experience along with knowledge on how to manage staff and volunteers,” Gomez said. “Having that knowledge already in my back pocket helped the whole process.”

In just one year, Gomez registered Atabey Outdoors as a nonprofit and formed a board of directors with two other women of color. She said the name was inspired by Taino traditions, the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Atabey (Ah-Tah-Bay) is the Earth mother and supreme goddess of the Taino community. 

‘It’s incredible to see the momentum’

Gomez operates Atabey full time with the help of volunteers who share her passion for uplifting kids of color in the outdoors.  

Quin Works, 30, has been a volunteer with Atabey Outdoors for over a year and has seen the progress of Atabey’s outreach. Works helps run the organization’s social media pages and chaperones many of the outdoor adventures. 

“It’s been incredible to see the momentum of how Atabey has embraced the community and how the community has embraced Atabey,” Works said. “It’s really exciting when there is a win, so to speak, like new partnerships, inclusion in the media, or new girls signing up. It’s rewarding.”

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How families join Atabey Outdoors

When families register children for Atabey Outdoors, they complete a questionnaire that asks for information on the child’s ethnicity and the family’s income level. Gomez said the average income of participating families is $15,000 to $35,000 per year. 

According to Atabey Outdoor’s website, while the programming is intended mainly for Black and brown girls, the organization welcomes all ethnicities, economic backgrounds and even boys so long as they demonstrate commitment to the organization’s mission.

To date, Atabey Outdoors has more than 50 registered members and an average of 10 children join each of the outdoor adventures. 

Atabey operates on grants, partnerships and donations. Grants come from organizations like The National Recreation Foundation and REI Cooperative Action Fund and help pay for food, transportation and gear. REI has lent the group outdoor equipment such as mountain bikes and kayaks. Atabey recently received a $25,000 grant from the city of Phoenix.

The funding also supports training and development. Gomez encourages Atabey volunteers to get certified in CPR and wilderness first aid. 

‘Just getting out of their element for a while’ 

Atabey sponsors an average of 15 to 20 adventures in Phoenix and other parts of Arizona each fall and spring. Activities include camping, hiking, gardening, mountain biking, paddle boarding and rock climbing. A few activities take place in summer. 

Atabey adventures have taken place in Papago Park, Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, Tempe Town Lake, South Mountain Park and Preserve,Canyon Lake and the group’s most notable trip, according to Gomez, a camping trip to Grand Canyon National Park in April. 

Atabey took nine girls, some parents and five chaperones to Grand Canyon. None of the girls had ever been there. While the new scenery widened their eyes, Gomez said the experience provided an even more important impact on many of the girls’ well being.

“Connecting with nature in general is grounding,” Gomez said. “It’s a grounding experience, being able to be away from the city, from distractions, from cars and lights.

“Being still in silence and quiet in nature while also connecting with other girls out there and having really impactful conversations. Just getting out of their element for a while, like seeing something they’ve never seen.”

Girls become mentors to younger members

Sydney Bryant, 13, from Gilbert, whose father is African-American and whose mother is Caucasian, has been a member of Atabey since 2021. She has joined many of the activities, including the Grand Canyon excursion with her dad, Michael.

“I’ve always been trying to find a way for my daughter to maintain her cultural identity, which is why we joined Atabey,” Michael Bryant said, noting that Sidney is one of the few children of color in her school in Gilbert.

“This is a really good way for her to hang out with people who have similar types of interests and backgrounds without having to try to fit in or trying to blend in,” he said.

Sydney is now part of Atabey’s junior mentor program, which Gomez created for girls age 13 and older. Girls in the mentor program take part in the outdoor adventures and teach the younger girls what they have learned. 

“I am usually indoors most of the time during the week, so this brings me out on the weekends,” Sydney said. “And I love being able to hang out with other people that I don’t normally hang out with. I’m also excited to be a volunteer and go on more adventures.”

Creating well-rounded Atabey girls

New experiences aren’t the only thing Atabey provides. In a recent mountain biking adventure at Papago Park, Gomez started the day with meditation to get the kids centered.

During lunch time she asked the girls to speak about what they loved about themselves. Before riding up and down the hills at Papago, Gomez talked about fear, how to conquer it and how to help each other. 

It’s all part of Atabey’s holistic approach to youth development, using Arizona’s abundant natural resources to create well-rounded girls who likely would never have been exposed to such opportunities.

“Me being able to provide them these experiences for free or at no cost was important because I know growing up that my family didn’t have a lot of money to pay for gear or to pay for me to go on outdoor adventure trips and things like that,” Gomez said. 

“So I’m hoping that the parents feel some sort of relief that their kids are being exposed to this at an early age. And the girls can share their experiences from Atabey with the families and with their community and say, ‘Look, these things are available, they are possible for us too.’”

How to get involved with Atabey Outdoors

How to sign up: Want to register your child for an Atabey Outdoors adventure? Sign up at https://www.atabeyoutdoors.com/register-now

Join the fundraiser: Atabey Outdoors presents its second annual Juneteenth community climb and fundraiser on Sunday, June 19, with indoor rock climbing, food, music and raffles.

There will be a panel discussion with members of Black Lives Matter Phoenix MetroChispa Arizona, an environmental justice organization that advocates for the state’s Latino communities; and Instituto, which offers training and other resources to organizations and communities.

Tickets cost $50 and include gear rental, a raffle ticket and an instructional rock climbing video. All proceeds support Atabey Outdoors programming. Find out more at https://www.atabeyoutdoors.com.

Sponsor an adventure: You can sponsor Atabey Outdoors events and members’  outdoor adventures. Sponsorship amounts range from $100 to $2,000. Donate at  https://www.atabeyoutdoors.com/atabeystore.

Contribute to the wishlist: Atabey Outdoors also has an Amazon Wishlist of camping and recreation gear and first aid materials that you can help purchase.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Culture and Outdoors Reporter Shanti Lerner through email at shanti.lerner@gannett.com  or you can also follow her on Twitter

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