Alan Alatorre-Barajas’ Environmental Education Journey

By Alan Alatorre-Barajas, Institute student alumni and Vamos Outdoors Project board and leadership team member

Recently, I was having a conversation with a supporter of the Vamos Outdoors Project about the history of the organization and why and how I am at Vamos. I mentioned that I wouldn’t be at Vamos if it wasn’t for my experience at North Cascades Institute’s Cascade Climate Challenge (now the Youth Leadership Adventures program, or YLA). 

Before I participated in the Cascade Climate Challenge, I had not participated in any outdoor recreation activity that wasn’t a small hike or a simple walk in a park. I just lived vicariously through some of my peers in grade school who talked about their camping trips, snow adventures, or water sports. I dreamt of doing that, but I didn’t think I would ever do it since I didn’t have money for outdoor activities. Perhaps, I thought, I would have the chance at something outdoorsy after college.

Unexpectedly, in high school, my best friend told me about a summer experience she had through North Cascades Institute and how she loved it. She told me about the other students she met. She proceeded to hand me a flier of North Cascades Institute’s upcoming summer programs for high school youth.

I was so excited to do Cascade Climate Challenge that summer. All I needed to do was find a mentor and other interested high school students so we could conduct a service project after the program was over. I was a little bummed out because I didn’t know anyone who would be interested. I spoke to two of my high school mentors and they slowly connected me with one student, then two, and another two later. The group became a group of six and then shrunk to four students.

North Cascades Institute instructors came to our high school to interview us after we applied and we were so nervous. We were competing against 40+ students and they only had 20 slots for the program. We also had to demonstrate our need to be able to receive a scholarship for the programs. Luckily, we were selected – I was so excited (and still nervous)!

This was a 20-day program, where we would learn skills to live in the wilderness while also learning about climate change. And, they weren’t kidding, when they added the word challenge to the program title. Everything was a challenge, especially for me. 

This was the first time I would canoe, backpack through the wilderness, camp, etc. I had to canoe for 8 miles with all our stuff for a few days at a time or backpack for 8 miles. I remember  going days without showering, and being without deodorants, shampoo, cellphones, or any other things I was used to in my daily life. I also remember slipping when crossing a stream and my backpack providing a cushion for me.

Five days into the program, a girl went home because it was too much for her. I honestly wanted to leave with her, but I decided to stay through the full 20-day course. I knew I would let myself down for not completing something I worked so hard to accomplish, especially a program that offered so many new activities if I had not continued.

There were challenges every day, but I also remember so many gifts from this experience, including building a community of friends. Everyone in my group felt like a small family and it was hard to leave that community behind. We were eager to see each other at the Youth Leadership Conference in the fall. 

I left with many valuable memories and experiences. I learned to start a campfire, I learned about climate change and how to communicate with others about making a difference, I did stewardship work on the land, talked to donors, learned how to live in the wilderness, and didn’t get lost during the solo reflection hikes. Those were most terrifying and the most exciting for me. 

I came back home excited to go hiking or camping with my family. I wanted to have an experience where I led youth on a trip like that. I was amazed by the reflections and activities our leaders led us in. I wanted to do something similar, but I always felt a disconnect with my areas of interest: education and human services. 

One thing that really stood out for me about the leadership training on the trip was a book we were reading about a hummingbird who tried to put out a fire drop by drop. Every animal who witnessed the hummingbird carry a drop of water, one after the other to put out the fire, thought the hummingbird was crazy. The hummingbird still believed in the impact one individual could have on making a difference. This story resonated immensely with me because of the courage, determination, and faith the bird had in making a difference. 

I carried this with me when I proposed my team service project idea of reducing use of plastic bags in the city of Burlington. Everyone on my team thought this was too ambitious of a goal to obtain–it would require a lot of work and we were voiceless because we were teenagers. But we did work toward this goal by speaking with people in Bellingham who implemented a plastic bag ban there.

We spoke with the public library about showing a documentary film lent to us by the City of Bellingham, collected signatures from our high school members, a few grocery stores, and connected with City Hall. While we had a few people disagree with our goal, we kept moving forward just like the hummingbird. Unfortunately, we were unable to finish our service project because of everyone’s limited schedule and time but we learned much from our efforts.

Later, I realized I could stay in touch with North Cascades Institute or similar organizations and lead activists or mentor youth, which I did. In late 2020, I found out about Vamos Outdoors Project and joined their board of directors. I felt a spark of enthusiasm to be connected with the Latine, migrant community and the outdoors, because I saw myself as a youth, again. And, I mentally told myself that one day I would work for Vamos. In spring of 2023, I had that opportunity through joining their Book Party Spanish literacy in Bellingham Public Schools. And my role has evolved since then. I have helped kids in their indoor climbing journeys and helped to lead Vamos’ first family camping trip.

Thank you for all the support, learning and inspiration North Cascades Institute!


Alan Alatorre-Barajas has been a Vamos Outdoors Project board member since Fall of 2020 and joined the Leadership Team in April 2023. He was born in Seattle, WA and raised in Skagit County. He is a son of Mexican immigrants. Alan has been passionate about helping the Latine community connect with the outdoors since his experiences through North Cascades Institute after noticing the need for exposure and connection to the outdoors.  Alan received his BA in Human Services and Master’s in Adult and Higher Education through Western Washington University. 

Youth Leadership Adventures Manager Neal Smeltzer is joining forces with Vamos to combine outreach efforts and offer collaborative programming. In addition to joint program recruitment events and strategies, our organizations are working with the Skagit Valley YMCA on an upcoming project to offer multi-week swimming programs for Latine students from Burlington-Edison High School. By working together, our organizations are able to reach more people, increase visibility and build community trust.


The first iteration of Youth Leadership Adventures was called the Parks Climate Challenge, later dubbed the Cascades Climate Challenge. Enjoy this video from the early days of our high school youth climate solutions program!


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