Q&A with Christian Vargas
Director of Community Engagement for Thorne Nature Experience
The Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside Initiative is a national network of partners working to create a more inclusive and accessible outdoor experience for all. In this Impact Stories series, we talk to local Thrive Outside leaders to learn more about their community and their vision for the future.
Boulder County may have a heavy concentration of professional outdoor athletes and outdoor industry brands, but it still has a lot of work to do to make its outdoor access more equitable. Thorne Nature Experience, the backbone organization of Thrive Outside Boulder/Denver, is working to deepen families’ relationships with the outdoors—and each other—in Lafayette and beyond.
We asked Christian Vargas, the organization’s director of community engagement, what to expect from the partnership.
What are Thorne’s main goals for the Thrive Outside partnership?
We want to ensure that all of our programs are meaningful for community members and remove any barriers to participation. In addition, we want to connect youth to nature through a continuum of pre-K to high school, backyard to backcountry, and family-integrated programming.
We’re trying to work together to create meaningful engagement with the outdoors for both children and families, so that engagement is more sustainable in the long run. We understand that kids’ whole families, including the parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, also need to experience and have access to the outdoors in a way that is meaningful to them.
We’re trying to ensure that access to nature is more equitable in our community, so we deliver nature programs to underserved youth in the cities of Lafayette and Boulder. We’re also trying to make sure that we support their families, too, and remove any barriers to accessing nature. So, for example, the school district has a program where fourth and fifth graders go on an overnight trip to camp in the mountains. Thorne Nature Experience and Nature Kids/Jovenes de la Naturaleza has summer programs that connect the rest of the family to a similar experience with family camps throughout the year in addition to other youth programs. By providing a way for the whole family to enjoy these nature experiences, we hope that they will continue their connection with nature and keep exploring the outdoors as a family.
How are you working to increase outdoor access locally?
One of our goals is that we want to ensure that Lafayette youth are living within a safe, 10-minute walk to nature—from their home to an open space, park, or trail. Every year we strive to have meaningful programming to connect youth and their families with outdoor opportunities. Three years ago, for example, Nature Kids was able to advocate and collaborate to raise funds to build a park right next to a school where we have one of the biggest Latinx communities. The park was designed with a trail that connects with parts of the community and the local town to connect families to nature. The park has a playground with boulders, tree logs, water features, and a shelter for community use.
With so much wilderness and nature in Colorado, why is it so important to create urban green spaces?
There are some families that don’t have access to a car, or maybe they have to work really long hours that don’t allow them to do these things. Especially with COVID, I think it’s really important for families to have local access to nature that doesn’t require driving. Even if they have a car, they might not have the confidence to drive in the mountains, especially if road conditions could get bad. Then they can still walk close by and have the opportunity to access nature without other means of transportation. We know that a family that visits or shares the outdoors together will be healthier overall. Families that have time to connect with nature likely have better communication with the kids, better mental health, physical health, and lifestyle balance. So I think it’s important to also have access within the city in a way that you can easily walk to the park or a trail, and you don’t need to use a car or spend more time traveling to be in nature.
How are the outdoors meaningful to you?
When I was growing up in Costa Rica, one of the main sources of income was tourism. In the late 70s, Costa Rica started putting together land to make national parks. Now, it is one of the countries with the largest percentage of protected areas in the world—25 percent of its land is protected. Growing up there, that was one of the things we used to do—traveling a lot, going to a national volcano or one of our beautiful beaches. That’s part of the culture, to drive on the weekends to explore the outdoors or go for a hike. When I moved to Boulder, I saw how similar it was, but at the same time, different. It’s a beautiful place, with many mountains, and it snows, so you have a variety of year-round outdoor activities. That alone connects you with nature, and many of these activities, like hiking, are free. Now that I have a family, I’m trying to pass along that love for the outdoors to my family and also take advantage of all the gems here in this state.
Your kids have previously participated in some of Thorne’s programming. How did that experience impact them?
My oldest kid did a summer camp where they went to four or five different places. They started with Cal-Wood, an outdoor engagement program, in Boulder, then from there they did an overnight. It was about a week long. They learned some outdoor educational skills, they did rafting and mountain biking, and then they went into the mountains for some camping. They engaged the kids in a way that also makes it super fun, so when he came back, he was very excited—the first thing he told me is that it was super fun and he had a lot of great memories, one being a competition in starting a campfire with minimal resources. He wanted to become a summer camp counselor as soon as he was old enough.
My youngest has done some summer camps as well with Nature Kids, around the Coal Creek Trail. It’s a long trail that travels along the creek through three cities: Louisville, Lafayette, and Erie. They teach the kids about the ecosystem, the plants and animals, and they keep them outside all day. It’s a really nice way to release all of their energy and connect them with the local trail system. He also attended the YMCA Camp Santa Maria in the Mountains, an overnight camp with a lot of fun activities.
During COVID, Lafayette Nature Kids provided families with small learning cohorts for students, where they were able to balance their online learning through their schools with outdoor activities. My son participated in this program and it made a big difference for him and his mental health during those difficult times.