Phoenix girl promotes out of doors recreation for women of shade

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PHOENIX (AP) — From a young age, Raquel Gomez loved being outdoors. Her parents took her cycling, rock climbing, tobogganing, inline skating and swimming. At the age of 10 she joined the girl scouts and got to know camping.

But besides the thrill of sleeping outside, singing around the campfire, and making s’mores, something happened outside that she never forgot. Gomez, now 35, of Dominican and Puerto Rican origin, noted that none of her peers looked like her.

“Camping for me was the first time I realized that I was the only person of color in this group, and not just in the group, but at the campground,” Gomez said. “That’s when I realized that outdoors in general, I’m usually the only person of color out there.”

This realization at an early age prompted her to pursue a career in youth development and promoting access to outdoor recreation for black and brown children.

Finding a job that combines these passions was not easy. So she created one.

In the summer of 2020, Gomez founded Atabey Outdoors, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that provides free, guided outdoor adventures to Black, Indigenous, and other black girls ages 8-12.

“When I looked for jobs, there wasn’t one that combined all of my passions and interests in (Phoenix),” Gomez said. “So I wanted to create a program for the younger Raquel, for the girls who want to be out with girls who look like her.”

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

“My father died the summer I was thinking about starting this organization,” Gomez said. “He was the adventure seeker who took me on many of my outdoor experiences, so I thought it would be best to honor him.”

During many of these adventures, the same questions popped up in her mind.

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

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

“I don’t claim to know every reason for everyone,” Gomez said. “But why I created this program has a lot to do with the communities I’ve worked with.

“They don’t have access to outdoor adventures like wealthy whites. You need money for equipment. It takes transportation to get where you need to go. And it takes knowledge to know the skills you need for those outdoor adventures.”

Recent demographic statistics on local, state and national park use support Gomez’s experience.

A survey conducted by Arizona State Parks and Trails in 2019 and 2020 found that visitors are predominantly white. In the sample, a quarter of the visitors to Arizona State Parks surveyed were black. Currently, 46% of Arizona’s population is Black.

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

These obstacles included lack of transportation, travel expenses, and national park entrance fees. A significantly higher percentage of Hispanic and African-American non-visitors surveyed cited these barriers than white non-visitors.

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

While attending 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 leader in Huntington, Utah, where he guided children and young adults into the backcountry, teaching them survival skills and providing therapy homework for people with issues like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Samir Clinton, 8, joined Atabey Outdoors for a Hike n Paint adventure. As Atabey members hiked the Freedom Trail in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, they stopped to enjoy the view and paint the landscape with watercolors.

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

Gomez said she doesn’t have much experience with the administrative side of running a nonprofit, but she feels her experience provides a solid foundation on which to build her organization. She’s spent a lot of time indoors during the pandemic researching the pieces she needed to attach.

“I had prior experience with youth development programs as well as knowledge of how to manage staff and volunteers,” Gomez said. “Having this knowledge in my 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 black women. She said the name was inspired by Taino traditions, Caribbean Aboriginal peoples, and early Hispañola. Atabey (Ah-Tah-Bay) is the earth mother and supreme goddess of the Taino community.

Gomez runs Atabey full-time with the help of volunteers who share their passion for empowering children of color in the outdoors.

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

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

When families enroll children in Atabey Outdoors, they fill out a questionnaire that asks for information about the child’s ethnicity and the family’s income level. Gomez said the average income for participating families is $15,000 to $35,000 per year.

Members of Atabey Outdoors had the opportunity to practice their meditation and headstand skills in this “Yoga in the Park” adventure.

According to Atabey Outdoor’s website, while the program is primarily for black and brown girls, the organization welcomes all ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and even boys, as long as they are committed to the organization’s mission.

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

Atabey works with grants, partnerships and donations. Grants come from organizations like the National Recreation Foundation and the REI Cooperative Action Fund and help fund food, transportation, and equipment. REI loaned the group outdoor gear such as mountain bikes and kayaks. Atabey recently received a $25,000 grant from the City of Phoenix.

The funding also supports education and training. Gomez encourages Atabey volunteers to get certified in CPR and first aid in the wild.