On a misty predawn morning in March, eight sleepy middle schoolers toss duffel bags into the back of a white, twelve-passenger van parked outside Booker T. Washington Elementary on San Antonio’s East Side. With six adult chaperones, the group is a mix of close relatives, best friends, neighbors, and community members who are meeting for the first time.

A black Ford Expedition is parked beside the van. It’s packed wall to wall with gear: tents, sleeping bags, propane stoves, water, beanies, gloves, rain jackets, and hiking boots. “You’ve got knives, you’ve got utensils,” says Thurman Hogan, who has packed and inventoried every item the group could possibly need for the three-day camping trip in West Texas. “You’ve got Louisiana Hot Sauce and Tabasco.” 

Hogan is the operations manager for Black Outside, a San Antonio nonprofit that aims to reconnect Black kids and teens with the outdoors. This trip is part of the Charles Roundtree Bloom Project, a program within Black Outside that offers outdoor experiences, combined with practices such as meditation and healing circles, to young people (of any race or ethnicity) with currently or formerly incarcerated loved ones. The goal is for participants to develop healing practices by expressing themselves and finding joy and freedom in nature. 

The program is a flexible one. “It’s very emergent,” says Ki’Amber Thompson, the group’s founder and director. “We are responding to the needs of our community, and that might look different from one year to the next.” Surfing in the Gulf of Mexico and camping in Colorado have been among the most popular adventures so far. When Thompson’s younger sister Cimone mentioned she was interested in trying yoga, the group organized an event in San Antonio that incorporated sound healing.

After a final head count, we start the nearly seven-hour drive toward our campsite in Terlingua. The rain picks up, then slows as we make our way through the Hill Country. The only sounds are the hum of the engine and a few soft snores. As we continue west on Interstate 10, the view shifts from grassy knolls and rolling hills to mountains foregrounded by limestone-lined stretches of highway. By the time we reach Fort Stockton, everyone is a little more awake. 

Earlier, I’d spoken with Thompson about what led her to start the Bloom Project in 2019. Growing up in a big family in San Antonio, she had a tight-knit network of cousins and caregivers. “I was raised in a communal way, which I really value. My cousins were my friends,” she recalls. They splashed in neighborhood creeks and played with roly-poly bugs. Thompson’s grandmother was at the center of it all, her house “a haven and a hub, a place where a lot of people could go. . . . There’s something beautiful about raising kids in community and not having it all just fall on one person.” Through the Bloom Project, she hopes to create a wider network of care and support for young people in her community.

When Thompson began college at Pomona, in Claremont, California, she knew she wanted to start some sort of mentorship program for youth who had incarcerated parents. “That was because my mom was incarcerated,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work with middle and high school–aged youth.” She also knew that she was passionate about environmental justice and education. After a few transformative camping and surfing trips in college, her vision became clearer. Being outside, she realized, offered “this safe space of solitude where I could reflect, and just be and explore,” she says. “It really expanded my horizon.” She decided she would try to provide similar experiences for the young people she wanted to support in San Antonio. “As I started getting things together in terms of mission and funding, that’s when I found out that my cousin Chop was murdered.”

On October 17, 2018, a San Antonio police officer shot Charles “Chop” Roundtree, killing him just one month after his eighteenth birthday. The family is involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the city and the officer. Members are still processing the sudden, traumatic loss; Charles’s mother, Bernice, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Jkyah, have come along on the West Texas trip.

Though Black San Antonians make up just 6.5 percent of the city’s population, they are more than three times more likely to be arrested and nearly three times more likely to be killed by police than their white neighbors. The city spends more on police than on housing, health care, parks, libraries, and human services combined. Since Charles’s killing, SAPD’s implementation of a “hot spot” policing initiative has drawn criticism for increasing police presence in communities of color that already experience high levels of contact with police, including the neighborhood where Charles was killed.

When Thompson considers what public safety and liberation would look like for her family, her neighbors, and the young people for whom she has created the Bloom Project, she thinks about “being able to move freely and have equitable access to food, clean water, and clean air. . . . Liberation also means youth of color can have useful, fun childhoods and exist freely in the way that they want to and feel loved, cared for, supported, and encouraged to express themselves.” The Bloom Project is a manifestation of this dream. Charles’s death pushed her even more urgently to bring the idea to fruition, in part as a way for the joyful aspects of her cousin’s legacy to live on.

“He was always outside,” Bernice says. Charles loved to play basketball and spend time at their neighborhood park on the West Side. He was very active and had a great sense of humor. When he walked into a room, there was not a single person he would fail to greet with a hi, a hug, or a kiss. “It was always all about family,” she recalls.

Camping at Big Bend.
Camping at Big Bend.Alex Bailey

For Bernice, spending time outdoors is a family tradition. Every Sunday when she was a kid, her family would get together at West End Park for a big cookout—not just relatives, but neighbors too. The only request was that everyone “bring meat for your family to make sure y’all eat,” and then her two uncles would barbecue all night long. “If you came late at night with a pack of meat, they were gonna put it on the pit,” Bernice says. This is her first overnight trip with the Bloom Project. She says it’s been “peaceful just to be away from everyday reality.”

When we finally arrive at our campground in Terlingua, we are greeted by a small white goat in a bright orange collar: a trusted companion of the man who runs the place. We all take turns snapping photos before the curious creature scurries off in a cloud of desert dust. It’s lunchtime and our stomachs are grumbling, but our tents won’t pitch themselves. 

While we assemble the tents, I chat with Gabriela Lopez, Black Outside’s program coordinator and a former high school teacher on the South Side of San Antonio, where she grew up. “In my teaching, I did a lot of restorative justice circles that helped students learn how to manage communication and active listen,” she says. The Bloom Project’s programming is often thematic, she tells me. Last year’s overarching theme was healing.

At an all-youth retreat in December, fire and rage took center stage. The group explored the double-edged sword of anger with the help of psychologists and reflected on how the emotion can manifest in both positive and negative ways. Later they wrote apology letters to themselves and others. Many wrote to their currently or formerly incarcerated caregivers. Then they built a bonfire and set the letters ablaze. This year’s theme is sustainability. “We have to take care of outside in order for us to be able to continue to be outside,” Bernice reminds the group.

Adaptability turns out to be important on this trip. When we return to the campsite after a day of hiking and swimming in Big Bend National Park, the wind is picking up. In pairs, we take turns making the trek from the tents to the outdoor showers as the dust swirls around us. We can barely see three feet in front of the glow of our headlamps, much less the stars in the night sky. So we wash up and tuck into our tents with turkey-and-cheese sandwiches before dozing off. Everyone is exhausted.

I wake up to the sound of the wind roaring against the tent. The flaps from the rain fly have come unstaked and are beating against the walls. “I dreamed a bear was trying to get in here last night,” laughs Lopez. We were anticipating a cold front when Hogan packed enough sleeping bags for everyone to double up, and double up I did. When I open my eyes, I smell the plastic zippers of my sleeping bags zipped up over my nose. I feel like a baby in swaddling clothes, warm and unburdened by the world.

Not 24 hours prior, we were comfortably wading in the waters of the Rio Grande at the base of Santa Elena Canyon’s walls. Now the temperature is dropping quickly, and the overnight low may dip into the low thirties. Alex Bailey, Black Outside’s executive director, makes a few calls to facilities with indoor accommodations and finds space back at Prude Ranch, near Fort Davis. Word travels fast that there is horseback riding available, and we hurriedly pack up our tents and load up the cars.

Unfortunately, we do not get the chance to cross horseback riding off our list on this trip. A series of miscommunications and microaggressions ends in the group being denied the opportunity to ride horses during the stay. (Prude Ranch did not respond to messages from Texas Monthly.) “I hate to say, but it is familiar,” Bernice admits. “It makes me feel uncomfortable and reluctant.”

“We have had experiences like that where we go to a state park and a police officer asks us a bunch of questions,” Bailey says. “That’s the dichotomy in the experience of being outdoors. There are real systemic barriers that don’t always make us feel welcome.” One of those barriers is the fact that more than 96 percent of land in Texas is privately owned

Still, the horseback riding snafu doesn’t sour an otherwise enjoyable trip. Everyone works up an appetite after an afternoon of swimming at the ranch’s indoor pool. “I really like the adults here,” Hallow, thirteen, tells me before dinner on the last night. “They make me feel cared about.” We’re having taco bowls, and Jkyah has convinced Bernice to lend a hand in the kitchen to give the meal a home-cooked touch. Hallow, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, is one of three newcomers to the Bloom Project from the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a San Antonio school. The four of us are seated around a table in an indoor kitchen-and-dining area at the ranch. “We’re bullied a lot,” Hallow tells me as they tuck their dark brown hair behind their ears. “I just want to make sure that everyone understands that we’re just people, so maybe in the future, there’s not as many people wanting to murder us.”

Hallow convinced two friends to sign up for the Bloom Project after Lopez gave a presentation at their school last year. This is their second outing with the group. “It’s just nice to be around people that I get to be myself around. I don’t feel very judged here,” Hallow says. Their friend Harold says the best part about the program is being able to detach from his phone. “When I’m here, it’s like an escape,” he tells me. “I’ve literally never seen a mountain. On the car ride, they were just—whoa.”

On the final day of the trip, it feels like Christmas morning. A powdery layer of fresh snow blankets the dry brush, and a crow caws into the cold air from a tall, naked tree as the snow flurries around him. As we pack our bags for the drive back to San Antonio, a few of the kids make a small snowman and snap a picture. Brenai Martin, eighteen, a high school senior who’s been part of the group since 2019, says she’s glad she came. “It’s hard to make time for being outside, but it’s always worth it.” Martin remembers a time when being outdoors made her feel unsafe. With the Bloom Project, she has new opportunities to experience what it should feel like: “Nature loving me and me loving nature.”