.San Jose Nonprofit MILC is on a Mission

The wealth gap in the Bay Area is rapidly growing with no sign of slowing down. As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, residents grapple with the costs of anything beyond basic necessities. Hobbies and gym memberships are not accessible to many, especially those who are from low-income households. This is where MILC comes in the change the game.

Driven by his love for rock climbing, San Jose’s Cole Kakimoto founded MILC, a nonprofit organization seeking to make the sport accessible to all. 

“The point of it is really to create diversity in the climbing community, because I’ve just noticed, in gyms in particular, there’s a certain type of people that are there and a certain type of people that aren’t there,” Kakimoto says. “I want to make sure that everybody can experience [climbing].” 

Kakimoto, 32, hopes to promote fellowship and build a community of devoted climbers. In addition to running MILC, he also owns Printhead, a San Jose screen-printing shop started in his garage in 2015.

“I’m using screen printing as my foot in the door. That was my initial thought on how to raise money, because it’s the one thing I have access to. I’ll just make goods and sell them and then use that money to fund these events,” Kakimoto says.

MILC hosts events at rock-climbing gyms where people of all skill levels are welcome. Rental equipment, a climbing-gym day pass and an intro-to-climbing class are provided at no charge for those who sign up. If someone can afford a day pass, Kakimoto would like them to pay their own way and allow the fees to be covered for those who would not be able to participate otherwise.

MILC’s goal is to bridge the gap for low-income people and at-risk youth to participate in the expensive sport of rock climbing for free.

Currently, MILC is able to accommodate up to 20 people at an event, but Kakimoto hopes that number can increase in the future. “I’m trying to create an environment where climbing is accessible to anyone regardless of their financial situation,” he says.

The primary sources of event funding for MILC are fundraising drives. For their January meet-up, Canadian outdoor apparel company Arc’teryx, provided merchandise for a silent-auction.

Many attendees are first-time climbers. And it reminds Kakimoto of his own introduction to the sport.

“I didn’t even know climbing was a thing amongst adults. I was hooked immediately. There’s a culture and there’s an artistic way of climbing. I just think that a lot of people could connect with it if they were shown it. It just takes somebody who’s already in the community to introduce people to it,” he says.

A veteran of the San Jose DIY punk music scene, Kakimoto has gotten plenty of customers for his screen printing business through that connection. “It’s how I’ve been able to work with a lot of people. Shirts have been the common thread,” Kakimoto says. “As long as I have the financial means to do [MILC events], I want to do it once a month.” 

Another of Kakimoto’s aims is to get people outdoors. He wants to help people foster a love for the natural beauty that the Bay Area has to offer at no cost. MILC aims to provide people with enough skills to eventually transition to outdoor climbing. In climbing, proficiency is based on grades: V0 being the easiest and V14 being the most advanced.

“Obviously, you can climb outdoors for free, but you need someone to show you how to do that stuff. You have to know where to go, you need to have the right gear, and you probably shouldn’t go alone, because it could be really dangerous, ” Kakimoto says.

MILC’s next meetup is in mid-February, and Kakimoto encourages experienced climbers to volunteer and join his fledgling community.

“People drive me,” he says.“I want to just give people a cool experience.”

Julia Kalusjin

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