PHOENIX — From a young age, Raquel Gomez loved being outside. Her parents 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.”
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.”
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 percent 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.
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.
Samir Clinton, 8, joined Atabey Outdoors for a ‘Hike n Paint’ adventure. As Atabey members hiked along the Freedom Trail in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, they stopped to take in the views and paint the landscape with watercolors.
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 people of the Caribbean and early Hispañola. Atabey (Ah-Tah-Bay) is the Earth mother and supreme goddess of the Taino community.
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.”
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.
Members of Atabey Outdoors had the chance to practice their meditation and headstand skills at this “Yoga in the Park” adventure.
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.
This article was published in the Associated Press.