Coombs Outdoors summer programs help local kids build confidence in the outdoors.
As the sun starts to dip behind the jagged silhouette of the Tetons, Coombs Outdoors kids and counselors make their way back to camp at Colter Bay, where Chef Ranga Perera is prepping the campfire for a big group dinner.
After a sunsoaked afternoon swimming in Jackson Lake and a quick lesson on bear safety from a Grand Teton National Park ranger, campers are eager to run around the campsite, which has been transformed from a big open patch of dirt to a friendly little neighborhood of colorful tents. “I’ve never slept in a tent before,” says Brianna (8) proudly, grinning ear-to-ear as she points to her tent and fastens her headlamp over her hat. “It’s just like building forts in my house,” Angelina (8) adds excitedly as she runs between the six tents, knocking on each tent door to gather everyone for dinner.
Activate Camp is where the journey begins at Coombs Outdoors, a Jackson Hole nonprofit that provides access to outdoor recreation for local kids, primarily of Latinx descent. Activate Program is an introductory program for elementary schoolers to try out a variety of activities and begin to feel comfortable in the outdoors. Throughout the summer, kids spend two full weeks in camp, hiking, swimming, rafting, rock climbing, and camping, gaining confidence on the trails in their backyard.
For many of the campers, tonight is their first time sleeping in a tent, or spending a night away from home. Ranga, who is originally from Sri Lanka, knowingly prepared a big container of fresh homemade salsa and tortilla chips to welcome the kids back to camp.
For Ranga, a professional chef, fly fisher and Stio ambassador, food is a way to bring a piece of home with him wherever he is. Tonight, his goal is to create a menu that makes sleeping in the woods feel like home for the campers. “As a person of color, camping and the outdoors were simply not accessible to me. Even once I was exposed to it, it was clear that there was an ideal way to do it,” he says. “Cooking in the outdoors is an expression of self in a place that’s healing and grounding, and that might look different for different people.”
For dinner, Ranga has prepared a huge batch of Yucatan-style grilled chicken tacos, with charred tortillas, grilled pineapple and cilantro. All ten elementary schoolers come running, excitedly scarfing down tacos at a rate that surprised even Ranga, “This is the best part of my whole summer!” Amairany (9) says, between bites.
“When I prepared this menu, I wanted to create that sense of familiarity of a home away from home,” Ranga says. “For people of color, when we step outside, it’s not immediately a home away from home. Most of the time, we’re adopting someone else’s culture to do it how it’s ‘supposed to be.’”
Making sure everyone can benefit from and feel comfortable in the outdoors is at the core of the Coombs Outdoors mission, which is to empower local youth to grow and thrive by reducing barriers to outdoor recreation through programs, mentorship, and community building. The Coombs journey spans from kindergarten through high school, supporting kids as they grow up in Jackson who might not otherwise have had the chance to spend their summers hiking and rock climbing, or their winters on the ski hill.
In Activate programs, elementary school kids play outside, try new things, and get comfortable outdoors. Once they get older, the middle school Engage programs are designed to help kids build skills and confidence outdoors. Empower high school programs provide the opportunity for kids to try out internships in the outdoor industry and work with the younger participants in programs.
Coombs stands out compared to so many other outdoor youth empowerment organizations because programs are designed to look at the big picture, rather than just providing a one-time experience. The cyclical model—where kids can learn and feel empowered to teach each other—has created a strong sense of community among participants.
Edwin (16) is working as an instructor part-time this summer, and at camp he’s running around with the kids, showing them how to use their gear and leading games to play around the campfire. “I learned so much from Coombs,” he says. “I got to do so many different things; I learned to ski and snowboard, we went camping, hiking and climbing. It’s really fun to come back now and work with the younger kids as they get to learn all these things too.” Five of the 10 full-time instructors this season are past Coombs participants, who are spending their summer working for Coombs before leaving for college in the fall.
Instructor Megan Tattersall says that all week the kids had been talking about the camping trip at the end of camp. “They were definitely nervous leading up to the trip,” she says. “They talked about camping all week and were asking so many questions since there were so many unknowns like: ‘Will it be cold? Will there be bears?’ But once we got to camp and started setting up our tents, they immediately got so excited and forgot what they were nervous about.”
As night falls, headlamps flicker on, s’mores supplies come out, and the evening shows no sign of dying down. The fire crackles, a few kids turn on the music and, well, it’s obviously time for a dance party. Music blares through the small portable speaker until quiet hours, and the kids sing along to every word, English and Spanish. Before everyone crawls into their sleeping bags, a small group walks out to a clearing to look at the stars. Finally—after a full day in the sun, tacos, salsa, s’mores, and a two-hour dance party—the campers are actually tired.
In the morning, the group is up at the crack of dawn, running around camp with a newfound appreciation for their new home. Ranga fries up a breakfast of chilaquiles, and the group happily enjoys another familiar meal before packing up camp and heading home to their families.
“The cool part of this moment in time is that now we’re saying: ‘Hey let's do this our way. What do I want to eat? What music do I want to listen to?’” says Ranga. “Dancing to Shakira in the woods with your headlamp on? Eating tacos and homemade salsa and dusting 115 tortillas? Now that's expression. That’s culture. That’s being outside in your own way.”
To learn more about Coombs Outdoors and their mission visit coombsoutdoors.org.