“Our mission is to connect our society’s most marginalized and under-served women to the healing power of nature,” said Jaime Adams, the Founder of the Forest and the Femme Society. The organization is one of the Early Entry Prize winners of The Play Exchange challenge.
Overall, physical inactivity and unhealthy eating are putting Canadians at risk of developing serious chronic conditions, such as type II diabetes, some cancers, and hypertension. Individuals living in poverty are even more at risk.
Adams believes that access to nature and nature-based activities should be a basic human right. So how exactly is the team making this vision a reality in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside? Jaime Adams gave us the full scoop:
Changemakers: Is there something about your life story that makes this your passion?
Adams: I have always had issues with anxiety. Fear made my life small and made it hard for me to both understand myself and to live life in a full way.
Moving to the city as a teenager really amplified this. Having grown up in small towns and always being outdoors, I knew that I was missing this important piece in my life.
When I started to get back outdoors, the difference it made for me was incredible. My sensory system became more balanced, I could handle stress better and I felt confident and capable. It made me realize that I had this huge privilege of having access to the outdoors, and I knew that I needed to share it with women who could never get there on their own.
Changemakers: What is it about nature and the outdoors that creates these dramatic benefits?
Adams: Nature has a profound ability to make life seem better. It helps to heal trauma, it is restorative, it helps your brain and body to relax and it’s free and plentiful. Exercise in nature is fun because it’s play.
Food tastes better under an open sky and we ensure healthy meals. Social connections to others happen naturally and easily when you are walking or sharing a beautiful view. All of these things are so important to our well being, and we deserve to encourage each other to experience this, especially our most vulnerable and marginalized populace.
Changemakers: We are increasingly immersed in technologies and media that pull our attention away from the natural world. Are people open to your message?
Adams: I know that the health benefits of being active in nature are getting more recognition, and public health systems are going to have to acknowledge and support this. I see stories about it coming up on social media more and more frequently.
Studies like “Mind’s Ecotherapy: The Green Agenda for Mental Health” are showing huge, positive correlations between nature contact and mental health, and are changing the way we think about our well-being. Their study showed that mental health improved in 94 percent of participants from green exercise activities.
Changemakers: Imagine you are out on the street and you bump into the kind of person you are trying to reach with your program. What kind of person is it?
Adams: Bumping in to people is what we do! We are an outreach-based program and this means that we go looking for women in their homes, usually single residence occupancy (SRO’s) hotels, transition houses or homeless shelters, at their boyfriend’s place, at their health clinic or drop-in centre.
We have created our program to be low barrier because we recognize that in order reach our target population—marginalized women with multiple barriers—we have to meet them “where they are at.” This means that they have probably not eaten a decent meal for a while; they likely have not left the Downtown Eastside (DTES), an inner-city neighborhood of Vancouver, for a long time; and they have no idea how to feel about getting outdoors.
Changemakers: What is distinctive about the population you serve, their wellness needs, history, and culture, and how has this affected your organization’s development and approach?
Adams: This is a really big question, and it’s hard to answer it in a brief way. DTES is a complex place filled with hope, community, sorrow and pain.
There are so many beautiful women that have ended up in the DTES, and there are a lot of ways that can happen. Addictions happen for a number of reasons, and some of it has to do with trauma, mental health, environment and genetics.
The majority of our participants are Aboriginal. Aboriginal people are very over-represented in the DTES. This is due to the way that they have been treated since settlers landed on our coastlines.
We recognized that there are high numbers of women living in DTES with developmental disabilities, most often Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), and they are very unsupported within the social systems that exist. It was these women that prompted us to create Forest and the Femme.
Changemakers: Can you give us a specific example of how one of these individuals benefits from your program?
Adams: Women who live with inner trauma often carry many fears with them. This is what keeps them safe. These women have lived on the streets and have survived things that you or I could never imagine: the foster system, residential schools, poverty, racism and violence.
Having a developmental disability increases the difficulty of navigating our world, and these women have made their way through the hardest parts of it. One participant came to us wanting to take part, but she was so fearful of everything (water, animals, heights, boats, even being in the forest because she had never been there before).
Two years later, this same woman has become our most intrepid explorer: she will go on any activity that we propose. She has become one of our Community Coordinators, and now is a role model and mentor for newer participants. What a privilege to witness her potential bloom this way!
Changemakers: How will you use your Early Entry Investment? What impact will it have?
Adams: We are going to use our early entry investment to ensure that we will have healthy, wholesome, and delicious food for the outings. Food is an important part of Forest and the Femme. The participants live in extreme poverty and rarely have access to healthy food.
Nutrition is important to our program, and having a variety of great tasting food provides opportunities to engage with them about health, nutrition, and the importance of caring for our bodies. Many of our participants are living with HIV, and having access to healthy food that is high in protein is very important for their immune systems.
And truly, nothing brings women together better than sharing stories over food. Especially if it’s just been cooked on a campfire!
Editor’s Note: The Play Exchange is excited to announce the top three early entry winners! Learn more about the innovative solutions of COMPASS, Trottibus, and Femme and the Forest, and how you can participate by visiting www.playexchange.ca today!
Follow #PlayExchange on Twitter to stay updated on the wealth of ideas for healthy living emerging across Canada, and check out the Facebook page to become part of the conversation.