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As the demographics of Patapsco Valley State Park users change, a nonprofit is trying to make the park more accessible to Spanish-speaking people and bring them into the fold as decision-makers and collaborators.

That’s the impetus behind the Mobile Interpretive Park Center, a roving van that is expected to start traversing Patapsco Valley State Park late next June.

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A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said project details were still being ironed out.

“Instead of them maybe coming to the visitor center, we’re going to them,” said Dave Ferraro, president of the Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park, the group launching the interpretive center.

About 30% of day users — those who patronize the park often and stay for long hours — speak English as a second language, Ferraro said.

“That’s a change; we’ve seen this grow in the past five years, and it’s a welcome change,” he said.

Updating park signage with both English and Spanish interpretation, for which state park organizations are continuing to seek grant funding, is a starting point, “but I think that this is meant to be an interactive experience … where they’re able to actually interact with a person or objects or a video rather than a stationary sign,” said Lindsey Baker, executive director of Patapsco Heritage Greenway Foundation, which in the summer provided a $50,000 grant for the interpretive center.

The interpretive center, a Mercedes Benz sprinter van that will be staffed by Spanish-speaking park rangers, will feature Maryland Park Service publications, maps and brochures on park programs and stewardship opportunities; a flat-screen monitor on a swing-out mount that details bilingual park programming; a white board with daily park updates and trail maps; and will also function as a mobile first-aid station and transport the Maryland Park Service’s Scales & Tales program, giving park patrons a chance to see live, non-releasable birds of prey and reptiles and discuss wildlife and natural resources stewardship.

The Patapsco park offers many free programs, but Angela Hayes, who joined the Friends board as its treasurer in October, said that “they’re not really taken advantage of by” Latino park users.

“We have to communicate better with them” to figure out “what’s going on with them, in terms of not being able to attend these free programs,” Hayes said, adding it could be an issue of promoting park activities or in scheduling them at times that may not be ideal for Hispanic families.

Schedules for programming are sent out to the Friends organization’s email subscribers, “but if you’re not on the email list, then you don’t really know,” Hayes said, adding, “these programs can’t happen without [good attendance] numbers.”

Operating the van, including its purchase, customization and costs to staff it, is estimated at $165,000.

The hours the van will run are still being determined, but Ferraro said it will be available weekends during the park’s high season in the warmer months of spring and summer.

He hopes to extend the interpretive center’s use to schools and festivals in the area and make it a “pretty visible piece of infrastructure.”

The van is similar to programs rolled out by the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Roving Ranger team at Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County and at national parks in San Francisco, Ferraro said.

“It’s exciting, it’s kind of a progressive thing,” he said. Working in lockstep with the Maryland Park Service and Patapsco Heritage Greenway, “we all realize that this constituency, they need to be represented here at the park, they need to be served here at the park.”

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The ultimate goal is to get more ESL, or English as a second language, speakers in leadership roles with the Friends organization and other Patapsco park boards, “and help us plan for what they want to see at the park,” Ferraro said.

“Patapsco Heritage Greenway really sees the mobile interpretive park center as a piece of, and an extension of, outreach efforts to Latinx populations in the overall heritage area,” Baker said.

Patapsco Heritage Greenway is partnering with the Friends group to hold its inaugural Festival Del Rio Patapsco at the park on June 21, where a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held for the interpretive center.

“The more people we can pull into this and spread the news, not just by Friends, hopefully the more” park stewards can effectively engage ESL speakers, Hayes said.

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