Victoria Lam: Getting Out and Doing Good

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Victoria Lam

Victoria Lam. Photo by Dana Barlock.

Ms. Victoria Lam is only a dissertation away from earning her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame (ND).  In addition to her core studies, Ms. Lam is passionate about connecting youth to the outdoors and recently found a non-profit – “Triple C” to do that. Her project has received two prestigious Grad Life Grants, followed by generous funding from the Merell Pack Project as well as the Outdoor Foundation.

I had a chance to sit down with Victoria after her recent speaking engagement to industry leaders and executives at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, Utah. She shares where her love of the outdoors began and how the program has helped youth to conquer their fears.

What does “Triple C” stand for?

Triple C stands for Camping, Climbing and Cameras.  This is a three pronged approach to engage and connect youth from urban areas to the outdoors by: 1. Education in Ecology and Wilderness Preservation; 2.  Camping and Nature Photography which teaches young people to focus and appreciate their new experiences through the camera lens; and 3. Participation in Outdoor Recreation such as rock climbing, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing which develops perseverance, overcoming obstacles and learning to be responsible for one’s peers.

How did you become interested in the starting this program?

Growing up in San Francisco, my parents took me on camping trips in Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and Whistler in Canada; I played soccer, volleyball and basketball in middle school and tennis and track in high school; being an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara further exposed me to the outdoors.  My father is an accomplished photographer and taught me the basics of lighting and composition as we recorded experiences. And most recently, I learned to rock climb at the Red River Gorge, KY and wanted to share this wonderful experience with others.

How have you implemented your program?

We work with 5th grade to high school-aged youth from the South Bend Community—specifically from the Robinson Community Learning Center, La Casa de Amistad and the TRIO program at ND. We pair each kid with two ND undergraduates who serve as their mentors during our six week program. Graduate students from the Sciences and Arts serve as the instructors from everything from ecological research to photography. Though I started this program, it was really a collective effort from the generous ND community that enabled the idea to be realized.  Since we formed in 2013, we have served 122 participants (and mentors) free of charge. This year, we had three times as many applications as the prior year so the word is spreading.

What were the aims of the grants?

Notre Dame believes in the spirit of doing good and helping others; our professors encourage us to focus on community building and push us to think of ways to enhance our communities outside the classroom, library and lab.  The Grad Life Grant allowed me to embark on the mission I had envisioned.  The Outdoor Foundation and Merrell grants enabled us to purchase everything from safety gear and cameras, to transportation and meals to start a legacy of youth engagement in the outdoors and hopefully grow this program in the future.

What were the major impacts of this initiative?

I believe that the skills the kids learned, especially through their rock climbing training with their mentors, really helped to boost their self-confidence and taught them the value of perseverance and planning. Furthermore, the nutrition lesson, healthy cooking course, and training on how to live an active and healthy lifestyle will stay with them for a lifetime. Additionally the ecological research they conducted and conservation proposals they wrote gives them the tools to act as environmental stewards of their own local natural resources. Of most value, the kids had a great time and were really excited about getting out in the outdoors more and about coming back to the program.

Do you have some success stories?

Yes! Gisella had a fear of heights coming into the program that she hadn’t told anyone about, but she worked with her mentor diligently to push herself and ultimately she climbed the most amount of routes at the most difficult levels and went on to win our Climbing Champion Award. We also went to Juday Creek where Biology Ph.D. students taught them about conservation and environmental research. One of our participants, who said she had often had difficulty concentrating  in school and actually struggled most with writing up the ecological research proposal, went on to win an Environmental Stewardship Award for the use of her field data in advocating for her local natural resources. So taken together, we really saw kids exert themselves to overcome personal impediments and discover new talents which I believe will carry through to other parts of their lives and cement their interests in the outdoors.

What are some of the challenges young people face these days?

Most of the kids we worked with have never owned their own camera, been kayaking, canoeing or even set up a camp site. I would say for young people in general that sometimes it is just a matter of a lack of knowledge about the opportunities to participate in different forms of outdoor recreation like rock climbing, while other times it is a matter of affordable access to transportation and equipment.

The first step is to introduce them to new ways to interact with our environment and instill interest in outdoor activities. Believe it or not, it is not hard to get kids outdoors and I never had to tell a kid to put away a cell phone or even to pay attention.

The second step is helping parents, who are crucial sources of support and encouragement, to create a culture of engaging with nature. I think at the close of our program, parents really see the value of the outdoor recreation as a tool to shape how kids view themselves and how they interact with others. This year, we will try to provide more resources to educate parents on ways to continue to foster their children’s interests through outdoor projects as well as, information on the great state and national parks around us.

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