Tree-Hugging Meets Therapy
Meet Sarah, Our OUTdoors Spotlight Of The Week
Backcountry partners with the Utah Pride Center (UPC) to support our local LGBTQ+ community and raise awareness about the UPC’s work toward advancing mental health and inclusivity in the backcountry and beyond. In our OUTdoors Spotlight series, we’re sharing the stories of LGBTQ+ outdoor athletes.
Sarah MacCombie (she/they) is an occupational therapist and associate clinical mental health counselor at the Utah Pride Center (UPC) who specializes in LGBTQIA2S+ (LGBTQ+ including Intersex, Asexual, and Two-Spirt individuals) health and wellness. They’re also the creator of Rainbow Wellness, a UPC program that offers classes that nurture health and authenticity in mind, body, and soul. We sat down to chat with them about their work, what trees have to teach us, and the power of community.
Did you always know you wanted to work at the Utah Pride Center (UPC)?
I decided to get my second master’s degree in Integral Counseling Psychology in 2017 so I could deepen my knowledge of mental health and wellness. In my second year in this program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, I learned about the psychotherapy internship opportunity at the UPC. It is so amazing that I had the opportunity to start my psychotherapy career there—I had just started questioning and exploring my sexual orientation and gender three years prior and working at the UPC allowed me to explore and grow exponentially.
What inspired you to become an occupational therapist?
I decided I wanted to be an occupational therapist when I was 17. Growing up, my parents had taken me to so many workshops and classes: painting, drum making, wool spinning and felting, blacksmithing, playing dulcimer and other instruments. I experienced the healing and transformational power of each of these activities. One time, I was laying down colorful clouds of wool onto fabric and experienced that each color exactly represented a feeling I had. The experience of representing my inner world through an outer expression felt incredible and powerful. When I learned that occupational therapy is based on the healing that happens when we engage with our environment in meaningful ways, I knew it was for me.
When did you make LGBTQIA2S+ your focus as an occupational therapist?
I started focusing on LGBTQIA2S+ wellness in 2019, when I was 31. My passion and drive to start Rainbow Wellness started with falling in love with myself as a queer person and then falling in love with the amazing queer community. The suffering and injustice LGBTQ+ people face matters to me. I have a lot of privilege as a cisgender, white, able-bodied person who started questioning in their 20s. I also have a lot of knowledge and education about physical and emotional healing. I want to use all of this to heal and empower myself and everyone around me.
“When I remember this [connection to nature] in my mind, body, and soul, I feel more connected to all of humanity—
imperfections, traumas, and all.”
Tell us a little more about Rainbow Wellness. What do you hope this program will achieve?
My intention is to nurture human connection, give people a space to be themselves, and explore what “being yourself” means to each of us as individuals. LGBTQ+ community members and allies can sign up for LGBTQ+ affirming classes and workshops like yoga, painting, dancing, writing, meditation, sensory self-care, psychedelic integration, Buddhism, queer spirituality, and more. Rainbow Wellness also helps raise funds for the Utah Pride Center’s free programming. All are invited!
What is an upcoming class you’re really excited about?
The meditation workshops with Emma Zevallos (she/her). Emma does an amazing job weaving her knowledge, wisdom, guided meditations, and personal experiences. It takes place once a month on Saturdays from 11am to 1pm. The upcoming dates are August 21, and September 18, and you can register here.
“When I learned that occupational therapy is based on the healing that happens when we engage with our environment in meaningful ways, I knew it was for me.”
Is there a class you’d like to see come to fruition that hasn’t yet?
I would love to see more dance classes, a class on relationships and sexuality, a financial management class, or cooking classes. There are really so many important topics that would be great to have!
You’re passionate about nourishing connections to self, nature, and humanity—how do connections to nature strengthen or affect connections to other people?
Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, has discovered that trees in a forest are connected and communicate with each other through a network of fungi that connect root to root—they cooperate for the benefit of their community.
I think humans are the same way. We grow and feel our best in connection and in community. We have forgotten our own root system, but the process of remembering is beautiful and important. Nature and other species can help us remember how to be here together.
How do you foster your own connection with nature?
One of the quickest ways to shift my mood or emotional state is hugging a tree. It’s a body-to-body reminder that I am here, I am connected to my body and heart, I am connected to this forest, this Earth, and everything that’s part of it. When I remember this in my mind, body, and soul, I feel more connected to all of humanity—imperfections, traumas, and all.
Where are your favorite backpacking destinations? What’s on your bucket list?
My top two backpacking trips were through the Grand Canyon (North Rim to South Rim) and the Four Loop Pass in Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness in Colorado. I actually didn’t finish that one—my partner and I got caught in a lightning storm and turned around on the second day—but it was such a fun trip and so beautiful! One I want to do is Bryce’s Under the Rim Trail.
What are your favorite items in your gear closet?
My Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Air Sleeping Pad and my NEMO Disco 15 Sleeping Bag. It took me a lot of trial and error to find the right gear that was lightweight and gave me a good night’s sleep. I love that the NEMO is wide enough for side sleeping, and the Sea to Summit offers just the right support for my back.
Is there anything else you’d like our community to know?
I want to acknowledge how real the challenges are to knowing, loving, and being yourself, especially when doing so out in the community. I also want to acknowledge how inspiring, beautiful, and permission-giving it is to see you being you.