Illustrations By : Alisha Landreth
FamCamp inspires and educates a new generation of campers with introduction to California State Parks.
Surrounded by redwoods and sequoias southeast of Sacramento in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a refreshing morning jog comes without the worries of running alone in East Los Angeles.
“My mom doesn’t like me going out of the house too much,” says Aranzasu Caballero. “Mostly due to how the area is.” Aranzasu grew up in a busy suburb of L.A. where more cars than trees populate her neighborhood. But every year, she maps out hikes and running paths she can’t wait to embark on in one of California’s many beautiful nature reserves. “They are all really pretty, and have their own unique features.”
Aranzasu is among the thousands of people to experience the great outdoors through a state parks program called FamCamp. Founded in 1994 as a way to extend camping opportunities to underserved families in California, FamCamp now partners with local agencies and nonprofits to introduce as many as 2,000 people each year to between 14 and 17 different state parks. The program removes restrictions, whether that’s physical or financial, in order to expand access to people across diverse social, economic and racial backgrounds.
“Most of the time, people simply don’t know. They’re not sure if they belong or if they can figure out what to do when they get there,” explains Sedrick Mitchell, the California State Park Deputy Director of Community Engagement. “We make it relevant for them.”
Relevance starts with education. For those who have never left their urban community, going off the grid, so to speak, can be daunting. When an organization reaches out to FamCamp about hosting an outdoor adventure for its members, a nominal fee pays for a member of the group to receive training on everything from necessary supplies, to setting up a tent, to first aid.
“The training we provide is geared toward helping people become confident and competent,” says Sedrick. “Once they complete the training, we lend them our trailer with all the supplies they need.” That includes sleeping bags, tents and cooking equipment, all of which are essential to an enjoyable camping experience.
“We set up the lanterns and the stoves that are connected to gas cans. We set up our tents along with our sleeping bags and sleeping mats,” shares Aranzasu. “In between the three days that we are there for, we play team building games and we even go kayaking for a bit. At the end of the three days, we get a certificate from the program and are officially able to use the FamCamp camp trailers where they are available.”
Through FamCamp, campers have hiked Mount Diablo outside San Francisco, roasted s’mores at Hearst San Simeon State Park on California’s Central Coast and camped further south in Leo Carrillo State Park. While the terrain and personal experiences may vary, the goal of the program is consistent throughout.
“We want to encourage people to be more involved in their community through civic engagement and the environment,” explains Sedrick. “Once people get acquainted with the outdoors, its magic draws them in. This is how we create a community of people who can defend the natural world.”
FamCamp measures program success not by number of participants or repeat organizations, instead by whether the experience motivates participants to pursue the outdoors beyond the program. A survey of over 900 FamCamp participants found that one-third of them were first time campers and another third had only camped once or twice before. Over 80 percent of respondents said they’d go camping again. And a study of the program’s impacts revealed for every one person who underwent FamCamp training, there were 64 others in the community introduced to nature, either directly or indirectly.
“With any activity we do, we have to make it so it’s an independent opportunity for people,” says Sedrick. “They can’t always go through us so it has to be something they can repeat.”
For Aranzasu, the training inspired her confidence in not just the wilderness but also in her everyday life. “The trips taught me that my parents won’t always be by my side to help me. They can’t always be there to fix my mistakes. I have to do things on my own and fix my own problems.”
When participants were asked about the skills they gained from the program, interestingly “camping” wasn’t even ranked in the top three. “It came in fourth,” says Sedrick. “Communication is always in the top two. That’s because we don’t focus on environmental training but rather supporting communication. [Participants] utilize nature as the backdrop to building these skills and that’s why so many become confident in taking others out camping and introducing these experiences to people in their home community.”