Forest and the Femme Society takes Downtown Eastside women to the great outdoors
Jaime Adams’s eyes light up as she recounts spending a sunny day at Killarney Lake on Bowen Island recently. Along with two residents of Downtown Eastside single-room-occupancy hotels, the 34-year-old founder and program coordinator of the Forest and the Femme Society hiked part of a trail and explored a marsh in Crippen Regional Park.
“It was gorgeous,” Adams told the Georgia Straight during an interview at CRAB Park. “Everything was so freshly green. There were eagles, there were frogs, there were tadpoles. There were all the fresh ferns coming up. There were beavers and their beaver dams. It was just like a delight of the senses.”
Forest and the Femme, an outdoor-recreation program for Vancouver’s most marginalized women, is gearing up for its busiest summer yet. Between June and October, Adams is planning at least 45 outings involving such activities as camping, caving, horseback riding, nature walking, and exploring beaches and riverbanks.
Last month, Adams left her job as a case manager at a Downtown Eastside women’s transition house, run by the RainCity Housing and Support Society, in order to focus on the nonprofit organization she founded in 2012. So far, Forest and the Femme has taken 25 participants on day and overnight trips—mostly aboriginal, self-identified women from the Downtown Eastside who are dealing with health challenges such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, developmental disabilities, psychological trauma, HIV, and hepatitis C, and who have experienced drug addiction, homelessness, and sex work.
A typical outing sees Adams, three participants, and two volunteers head to Lynn Headwaters Regional Park, Pitt Lake, or the Squamish River estuary. Participants, who are mostly in their 30s and 40s, are fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
According to Adams, it takes 12 hours to prepare for an outing. She noted that trip plans are adapted to meet the needs of participants. Some have mobility issues and use canes, walkers, or wheelchairs.
“I want them to feel like they deserve more and they can access the outside world,” Adams said. “They belong here and it’s theirs, and I want them to experience nature the way that I experience it. It puts your sensory system back together. It helps with your anxiety. It helps ground you. It helps bring you back into your body, which is really important for women with trauma.”
Adrian Edgar works for Vancouver Coastal Health as an outreach doctor in the Downtown Eastside, and several of Forest and the Femme’s participants are his patients. He praised the program for challenging the “misinformation” that abounds about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
“I think one of the largest challenges that faces people with it, actually, is stigma,” Edgar told the Straight by phone from Ucluelet. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the disease itself that places limitations on people. Just as it is with other people with disabilities, it’s more about finding ways that society can accommodate and adapt for limitations on people and then giving them a space to really show their strength. That’s what the program does.”
Sarah Moreheart, who is on leave from her job as the program manager for RainCity Housing’s Vivian transition house, told the Straight that Forest and the Femme offers vulnerable Downtown Eastside women opportunities that aren’t available anywhere else. According to the Simon Fraser University public-health master’s student, the Vivian’s residents generally don’t go farther than three blocks from the facility without being accompanied by a support worker. Moreheart noted that she’s witnessed how Forest and the Femme outings have boosted the confidence and self-esteem of residents who have participated.
“They’re more willing to try new things,” Moreheart said by phone. “There doesn’t seem to be that same level of hesitancy around trying out something new, because they’ve already done something new. It’s a great point of reference to come back to and be like, ‘This seems really scary, but remember when you went zip-lining? That was really scary too.’”
Adams raises money for Forest and the Femme by selling crafts she makes with found materials such as animal skulls, feathers, and wood. In May, the nonprofit won a $1,000 early-entry prize in the federal government’s Play Exchange competition for active-living projects. However, according to Adams, the currently all-volunteer program desperately needs donations, sponsors, and “sustainable” funding in order to carry out its summer plans and operate year-round.
Adams, an outdoorsy person herself, observed that it’s the “most exciting thing” to watch women who’ve “survived so much” swim in a lake or touch a starfish for the first time in years.
“It’s exciting for me too and the volunteers, because we also get to see nature again through their eyes for the very first time,” Adams said. “It’s just really special that way. It makes me make sure that I’m not taking any of this for granted.”