The sense of community and belonging in the Yakima Valley is fierce, and part of that pride stems from the work that organizations like the Yakima County Development Association and Yakima Valley Tourism do to promote local opportunities and attractions. But when the communications and events manager for the Yakima County Development Association grew up in the Valley herself, the sense of pride is even stronger.
Jessica Camacho, 28, was born in Mexico City. At a young age, her mother left an abusive relationship with Camacho’s father, fleeing to the United States. “I was only 4 years old at the time, and I mostly remember the bad stuff,” Camacho said. “I even remember my mom sliding down a hill full of rocks on our journey.”
Camacho’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins had been living in Wapato. Her mother took Camacho and her younger sister to live with the family — all of them jammed into a three-bedroom home.
She grew up surrounded by the agriculture of the Yakima Valley and started taking part in the harvest at a young age. “We worked in the asparagus fields in the spring, and we’d go out at 3 a.m. with the car lights turned on to help us see,” she said. “We were paid by the bin, and mom could earn more money if I helped, and she could avoid having to spend all the money earned that day on a babysitter.”
Camacho harvested everything from asparagus to mint with her mother, and helped her grandfather pick cherries from the age of 5. After early mornings in the fields or orchards, she’d head back home around 7 a.m. to get ready for school. But eventually, the difficulty of working in the fields got to be too much for her.
“I was hospitalized at age 14 from pneumonia,” she said. “It was during a really cold, stormy spring for asparagus season, and after I got better, my mom told me I needed to find a job if I didn’t want to go back to work in the fields.”
Camacho found a position with Skone and Connors handling the sticker labels for potatoes, but as management took notice of her excellent people skills, she was promoted to an office position, where she continued to work during the summer throughout high school.
Headed to College
For Camacho, going to the University of Washington had always been a dream. “I knew I wanted to go to the UW at a really young age. I remember going on a school trip to visit the UW campus, and I was reading Harry Potter at the time,” she said. “We visited the library, and all I could think to myself was ‘This is where I want to go.’”
When Camacho was a senior at Wapato High School, a teacher encouraged her to apply for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, and she graduated as the valedictorian in 2010.
“My mom had always told me she would never be able to help me financially to go to school. She told me she could help in other ways, but could never help to pay for it,” said Camacho. “At the time I didn’t really understand what valedictorian meant, but it ended up that I received a scholarship for any school I wanted to go to. I was a first-generation student — the first person in my family to ever go to school.”
When she arrived at the UW, Camacho decided to study mechanical engineering. But after harsh comments about being a woman in a male-dominated field, she focused on public relations and communications. “I looked around the hall of 200 students, and I was the only Latina in the room,” she said. “I ended up trying a communications class and I fell in love.”
Camacho graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in communications, along with a minor in diversity, but she didn’t know what to do next. College had been the ultimate goal. She worked in San Diego for two years, then moved back to the Yakima Valley in 2016, taking a position as a senior account manager for Field Group.
“When I moved back, I got so much more involved in community organizations like the Downtown Association of Yakima, I Heart Yakima and the Central Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “I saw so much excitement and all the work these organizations were doing to better the community.”
When she decided she needed a change from the Field Group, Camacho reached out to John Cooper, CEO of Yakima Valley Tourism, just as the role of public relations director was opening up.
“During my interview, I told him I don’t know any other place I can call home as I do with Yakima,” she said. “I had already been living and breathing the promotion of our community, and because of my background, I know all of the great things in this Valley.
“I know the background behind hops. I know about our incredible outdoor recreation because I would go down to the river to swim and float. I know all about our agriculture because I picked food to survive as a young girl.”
Camacho’s role with Yakima Valley Tourism included communication with tour operators to develop travel itineraries for visitors to Yakima, as well as media inquiries and representing the Valley at conferences and trade shows.
Today, Camacho uses all of those life experiences to promote the many opportunities the Yakima Valley has to offer in her new role as communications and events manager for the Yakima County Development Association.
With a mission to expand and retain existing business opportunities, along with recruiting new small businesses, the nonprofit drives economic growth in the area. Camacho’s role includes promoting Yakima County as a destination for business and growth, in addition to heading up the annual Enterprise Challenge business plan competition, which assists small business ventures with planning and marketing, with the ultimate goal of awarding start-up or growth funds.
“It’s such a good feeling to promote the great experiences available to all of us here, but to also support local businesses to help them thrive,” she said. “I embrace this as my town. This is my home, and I love to share it with other people.”