Despite growing up in the shadow of Mt. Hood, Yesina Castro didn’t know what being outdoors meant other than playing in her backyard, running through orchards and getting lost in the woods.
“In high school I started hearing about hikes,” recalls Yesina. She was shocked when her social media feed began showing pictures of trails near Parkdale, Oregon, her hometown. She had no idea they were also part of her backyard.
Yesina’s story, unfortunately, is not rare for Latinos. The most recent survey commissioned by the National Park Service found that 9 percent of visitors were Latino. The majority, roughly 78 percent, were white.
“People didn’t look like me,” remembers Yesina, who studied health promotion and health behavior. “I was nervous about not having the right gear or getting looked at weird because growing up I was often in settings where me and my family were ‘different.’”
After getting her driver’s license, and thanks to help from a Latina girlfriend who landed a summer job with the U.S. Forest Service, she gradually became more comfortable and confident on the trail.
Yesina says she loves being outside, as well as the peace it brings her. She says she wants to share this love by helping Latinos understand the outdoors is for everyone.
Bringing Latinos to the outdoors
“Since graduating, I have done a lot of work around the social determinants of health,” Yesina says. “I have been leading and taking vulnerable communities out on hikes and having conversations with folks about the connection between health and the outdoors.”
This effort started with a grant she was managing for The Next Door Inc., a nonprofit in Hood River, Oregon, where she worked for three years after graduating.
After grant funds ran out, the hikes evolved into a community-led effort under the name LatinXplorers. Yesina and other community members post announcements on social media about hikes they lead around Oregon.
“One of the biggest barriers is getting people to the trails,” Yesina says. “Because if it’s not me driving people around, we need buses or vans, and that’s expensive.”
It’s not a barrier for which she has a solution, but it’s not slowing her down.
Connecting health and the outdoors
Yesina says the outdoors is for everybody, but until they experience it they don’t know about recreational options or potential health benefits.
“I’ve talked to people who I’ve taken on hikes for the first time, and after the hike they say, ‘Wow, I feel happier. I was so depressed being indoors and I didn’t know that simply being outside, listening to the birds or listening to the leaves rustle would make me so happy,’” Yesina says. “I want to bring more of that happiness and health into people’s lives.”
When on the trail, Yesina and other hike leaders don’t lecture about health. Instead, she says, they take a conversational approach. “We present the hikes as an adventure,” Yesina says. “The conversations about connecting health and the outdoors come when we start hearing comments from the people we take outside.”
Discovering her passion has a name — public health
In high school, Yesina was in a number of health-oriented clubs. Despite this, when starting at Oregon State University, she enrolled as a business major.
Soon disenchanted with business, she visited OSU’s Career Development Center. “I took this fancy career test that was $30 at the time,” Yesina says. “It was the best $30 I have ever spent. The test said public health was my No. 1 career match. I had no idea what that was, and after someone explained it to me, it was exactly what I always wanted and still love to this day. I am so glad one of my passions has a name — public health.”
During her undergraduate years, she traveled to Honduras and the Dominican Republic with two different public health study abroad programs. These experiences inspired her to continue learning from other cultures.
Yesina recently returned from a year in Japan. “I learned a lot about Japan and the way health and education is addressed,” she says. “We have a lot to learn from other countries, especially in the area of health.”
Yesina is currently doing contract work to develop a curriculum on health and the outdoors. She has a number of other goals lined up, but one common theme persists.
“I am always chasing things that I am passionate about,” she says. “Work that makes me happy and contributes to increased equity in one way or another for vulnerable communities.”
REI recently featured Yesina’s powerful story and Mount St. Helens summit. Take a look.