On a sunny Friday morning in late May, instructor Gabby Bejarano talked about kettle ponds and oxbow lakes as a group of 10- to 14-year-olds ate lunch on the pier at Beach Lake in Chugiak. Afterward, the Trailside Discovery Camp group sampled the water quality in the lake and hiked to the beach to learn about local geology.
Trailside, which offers outdoor and STEM-themed day camps and multiday trips for kids ages 4 to 14, is one of Southcentral Alaska’s longest-running summer camps. It started in 1982 on the campus of Alaska Pacific University and is operated by the Alaska Center Education Fund.
Now, Trailside serves around 350 kids across five sites in Anchorage, Eagle River and Palmer.
Four decades after Trailside’s launch, some former campers are now adults with their own children in camp, and a few former campers are now instructors.
But for Bejarano, a fun and engaging 36-year-old UAA graduate with a degree in natural science and a minor in geology, this was her first week at a summer camp — ever.
She grew up in a military family, with a white father and a mother who is half Latina and half Chamorro, an Indigenous group from the Mariana Islands. Her father was a Marine, her mom was in the Navy. She moved a lot as a kid.
Bejarano’s path into STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — was not easy. Her husband is in the Air Force, and their daughter, Meira, just graduated high school.
“It can be really hard as a military spouse especially because we move a lot,” she said. “So can you imagine getting to, like, Physics 2. And then it’s time to move. ... You got all these labs and, you know, family, and STEM becomes hard. Not just financially, but lifestyle-wise too.”
When Trailside Discovery Camp director Vicki Long-Leather was hired in 2017, 91% of Trailside campers identified as white. That’s a much higher percentage than Anchorage as a whole, which is 61% white, according to the 2020 census.
This year, 72% of campers identified as white — reflecting an increase in diversity that Long-Leather attributes to efforts that started before she joined the organization.
One of Trailside’s more successful diversity efforts is its scholarship program, which includes direct scholarships and those distributed through a partnership with the Anchorage School District and its migrant education program. In 2017, those scholarships totaled around $28,000, and this year it’s nearly $179,000.
Like fields related to STEM, the outdoor recreation industry has long struggled with a lack of diversity, although that’s beginning to change with efforts like #DiversifyOutdoors. Long-Leather, who grew up in England, is starting to see some of those shifts now among her staff.
“I personally came on a J-1 visa 13 years ago, and this year we have a staff from Jamaica, Germany and Mexico joining us, and then we also have staff from all over the Lower 48 and Alaska,” she said.
For Bejarano, her first week of camp was special.
“Five-year-old Gabby came out and I had a blast,” she said. “My daughter just graduated high school, so my in-laws were staying with us for three weeks. She’s like, how did it go? Did you make friends? And I was like, camp was awesome!”