Park personnel taking Spanish lessons

March 15, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

BOONSBORO -- A woman runs to a park ranger at Greenbrier State Park and frantically blurts out: "Mi hija se ha perdido."

What does the typical U.S.-born park ranger do? Probably get to the public address system or a telephone to track down someone to translate Spanish.

"Usually some child shows up and interprets for us," said Daniel P. Spedden, park manager of the South Mountain Recreation Area, which includes the 1,200-acre park in Washington County, east of Hagerstown.

"But that's precious seconds you don't want to waste in that instance. A lost-child search could be delayed because we can't find someone to interpret for us."

In the case above, the woman told the ranger her daughter was lost.

To better serve the park's already sizable, and growing, number of Hispanic visitors, about a dozen park rangers, supervisors and clerical help -- including Mr. Spedden -- have begun taking two-hour Spanish lessons each Monday.

By Memorial Day -- the start of the busy summer season -- Greenbrier's staff members should know enough Spanish to help them communicate under a variety of circumstances, ranging from helping parents find lost children (they're usually in park restrooms) to issuing citations.

"We're going to learn short phrases to quickly establish what we're trying to accomplish with these people," Mr. Spedden said.

He estimated that about one-third of Greenbrier's 300,000 annual visitors are Hispanic. Most come from metropolitan Washington and are attracted to the park because of its spring-fed, 42-acre lake.

Accommodating non-English-speaking visitors is not something new at Maryland state parks. Some parks, including Greenbrier, have posted fishing and other regulations in Spanish.

Others are looking at ways to accommodate non-English-speaking visitors. Point Lookout State Park in Southern Maryland, for instance, is considering printing brochures and signs in some Asian languages.

"We have a lot of Korean, Vietnamese and other nationalities that visit the park. Some speak English; some don't," said Ranger April Havens. "We can usually overcome problems. We work a lot with the younger generation who can speak both languages."

Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County has had a Spanish-speaking lifeguard or ranger available the past several years. Legal rights and other documents are printed in Spanish, as well.

"We have widely diverse languages spoken here. Specific help in one area is not going to help them all," said Ranger Gary Adelhardt, Sandy Point's assistant park manager. "Spanish has been the big language, so we've been trying to concentrate on that."

Greenbrier's Spanish lessons are a first among state parks, said Rick Barton, superintendent of Maryland's state forests and parks.

"Greenbrier has as diverse visitation as we have anywhere," Mr. Barton said. "This was their idea. We don't have that kind of discretionary money available for things like this. I'm sure [Mr. Spedden] had to scrape to find money in his budget. It shows you how important it is to them."

Mr. Spedden's explanation for why the lessons are important is pragmatic: "As this park becomes more popular with this segment of the community, we find ourselves running into more problems because we can't communicate with them effectively," Spedden said.

More than issuing citations for park violations are at stake. Hispanics often don't attend programs or clear the beach -- during storm warnings -- because they don't understand public announcements.

Something as simple as telling someone no pets are allowed becomes an exercise in frustration. And try telling a carload of non-English speaking visitors on a hot summer weekend that they'll have to turn around because the park is full.

"We can't customize those kinds of things at the last second and say them in Spanish," Mr. Spedden said.

But "El parque esta lleno" -- the park is full -- will soon be part of their vocabulary.

Rangers are eager to learn because "they have lived through the frustration of not being able to communicate in times of emergency," Mr. Spedden said. Refresher courses will probably be given each winter because "if you don't use it, you lose it," he said.

Hugo Cardenas, a part-time Spanish instructor at Hagerstown Junior College who is giving the rangers lessons, said everyone in the community will benefit from their new language skills.

Mr. Cardenas said he is often called on to translate for police officers and others in Washington County.

"This is something that is needed," he said.

Greenbrier is paying about $500 for the course.

"It's not expensive, considering a full one-third of our summer visitors are impacted by this," Mr. Spedden said. "These people pay $2 apiece to come in here. They deserve at least this much from us."

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