It’s a minor detail, but a significant one, officials say. Spanish permeates the educational outpost, sharing equal billing with English. Park managers hope that the new materials help serve Hispanic visitors, who represent a large majority of Sandy Point’s users.
“We’d always have to tell them that’s the Bay,” said Daniel Salomόn, one of two bilingual interpretative outreach assistants who staff the facility. Some thought they had reached the Atlantic Ocean, which entails another 90 miles of eastward travel.
“That was a real ‘aha’ moment in our programming,” said Melissa Boyle Acuti, head of interpretation for the Maryland Park Service, “that there was a lack of understanding.”
When it opened in April, the nature center became the first purpose-built bilingual facility in the state’s system of 67 state parks, natural areas and other public assets. Some parks have grafted Spanish-language interpretive materials onto existing English ones, but none have been fully integrated the way they are at Sandy Point, Acuti said.
With its not-quite-white sandy beach — the beige color indicates the sand’s iron content – Sandy Point is one of Maryland’s most popular state parks. The 786-acre getaway just north of the US Route 50/301 Chesapeake Bay Bridge routinely attracts more than 1 million visitors per year. Summer is easily its busiest season, with park staff frequently turning away visitors because its capacity has been reached.
For park managers and Chesapeake advocates, though, the park long represented a missed opportunity. Thousands of people were flocking daily to the shores of the nation’s largest estuary and leaving without learning what an “estuary” is, among other environmental facts. (An estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of water where freshwater and saltwater meet.)
Part of the problem was the park’s environmental education offerings — or lack thereof.
The park’s nature education offerings were squeezed into a corner of a concessions building, barely large enough for a lone table and some pamphlets. A 2015 visitor study conducted by an intern from the Hispanic Access Foundation showed that only 3% of the park’s users were aware of the nature center’s existence.
The other problem was the language that educators were using. According to the 2015 survey, 80% of Sandy Point’s users identified as Hispanic.
“That’s when I knew there was a really big gap,” said Gabrielle Roffe, manager of equity and community engagement for the Chesapeake Conservancy.
The lack of engagement with a more diverse range of communities has long been recognized as a problem for the Bay’s health as well. Engaging more “minority stakeholder groups” in conservation and restoration efforts is a directive of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.
In 2019, a partnership consisting of the Conservancy, National Park Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began funding two bilingual outreach assistant positions, based at Sandy Point. Their mission: to provide translation services and develop programming to better engage the Latinx community.
Since then, the program has expanded to a total of six positions at nine Maryland state parks. Most of the bilingual staff are locals who are either in college or recent graduates, Roffe said. To many Hispanic visitors, she noted, the staffers are a trusted face, ready to supply an interesting nugget of information or help defuse tensions with non-Spanish speakers.
Salomόn was one of the first to be hired, joining in the 2019 pilot year. He doesn’t have an environmental background and studies media production at nearby Anne Arundel Community College. But he keeps a handwritten notebook on his desk, with pages full of scripts to help him answer frequently asked questions.
Like: How many different shark species can be found in the Chesapeake? Answer: 12
He said it also helps to keep a handy list of Spanish translations of English environmental terms. He learned that was a necessity after struggling to find the Spanish word for caterpillar (oruga).
When it was time for the nature center’s makeover, there was a money problem. “As our exhibit designer told us, we had a champagne taste on a beer budget,” Acuti recalled.
The plan was to continue sharing a building with concessions but to expand into the other corner on the same side of the structure.
Filling that space, which was a little bigger than the footprint of a school bus, would fall to the staff’s own creativity and handiness. Two rangers with woodworking skills, for example, transformed a donated boat into a child-size replica of a deadrise waterman’s vessel. Others collected driftwood for a life-size rendition of an osprey’s nest.
The literal and figurative centerpiece is a floor-to-ceiling mural by local artist Phyllis Saroff that depicts life above and in the water. Some of that life was crafted into magnets that children can attach to the artwork wherever they wish.
Ever seen a jellyfish fly above the water’s surface? Here, you can. Luckily, Salomόn is posted nearby to gently correct any such errors.