Talking with Carolina Giraldo, manager at the Meadowside Nature Center in Rockville, Maryland, one word comes to mind: Translator.
In some instances, Giraldo and her staff provide literal translations, offering educational programs in both English and Spanish. But she’s also a translator for nature. With two decades of experience and a passion for the environment, Giraldo helps guests understand the functions, wonders and vulnerabilities of the natural world—both local and global.
Meadowside is one of five nature centers within the Montgomery Parks system, which is part of a larger organization called Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission (MNPPC). They offer indoor exhibits on local wildlife, typically geared toward children ages 12 and under, and various outdoor exhibits, including an accessible deck where you can view and learn about six different birds of prey who are unable to be released into the wild and live on the property.
Currently, the center is closed for renovations and offers programs with advanced registration only. You can still visit the surrounding trails, and the center hopes to reopen in 2024.
In the following interview, which was edited for length and clarity, Giraldo talks about her role as an environmental interpreter and educator working within the Chesapeake region.
How did you first get involved in environmental education?
I went to the University of Florida and got a degree in animal science, thinking I wanted to be a veterinarian. I decided I did not want to be a veterinarian, but I had an animal science degree, so I kind of fell into animal training back home with marine mammals, particularly dolphins and sea lions. I did that for almost three years, and then came to the National Aquarium in Baltimore where I trained marine mammals for almost 13 years.
Aquariums help foster a connection with people and animals so that people are inclined to behave in ways that can benefit those species or the environment in general. I really enjoyed delivering that message to people, so I wanted to delve a little bit deeper into that aspect, versus just training the animals. That’s when I came to Meadowside. I was lucky enough to get hired and I've been able to have the best of both worlds, because we still have animals that we train, but we focus a little bit more on building that connection with people and nature.
What is the key to forging those connections between people and nature?
It’s all about having an awesome interpreter and naturalist. It’s their job to find a piece of the exhibit or program that connects with people, which can be hard when we have 20 people that all have different life experiences and backgrounds. Typically, we try to hone in on the central message that nature and people are not disconnected. We try not to be preachy, because that never gets anywhere, but we want to instill a sense of wonder regarding nature. At a nature center like this, we have an opportunity to build upon that message each time we encounter visitors, whether it's through programs or if they're just passing through the building.
When did you start offering programs in Spanish?
When I first started here, I noticed that with the people that were coming in through the building, I was hearing a lot of Spanish. I'm Hispanic myself—I’m Colombian—so I was hearing that on a daily basis. With the indoor exhibits, a lot of it is meant to be a visual or physical experience, so the language shouldn't be a barrier. But if you wanted to go a little bit deeper and join one of our programs, we didn't have anything for that.
We started offering them around 2017. Basically, anything that we offer in English we can now offer in Spanish. For example, we've given Spanish language programs on bird watching. We've had tree Trail Talks, which are walks that are either Spanish or bilingual. We offer a program on the Day of the Dead to bring in a cultural element. We've even had Spanish story time for young kids where they can just hear a story in Spanish and do a little campfire.
We’ve also offered field trips that are in Spanish for the community and K-12 schools. We’ve had quite a bit of success with that because there's a couple of Spanish language immersion schools around here that just don't have the opportunity to take what they're learning in the classroom outside. So it's been really cool for us to offer the program completely in Spanish.
What’s your biggest challenge?
At the center, the biggest challenge is honestly getting people to know that we’re here and that we’re part of a really large organization. A lot of times people hear “parks” and think of a playground, so they don't even realize that they have this awesome resource nearby. And then on a grander scale, it's just how environmental education is constantly evolving, like in terms of climate change or what schools are focusing on. So we just have to make sure that we're staying on top of it.
What inspires you?
Even if you're not a nature person, nature benefits you in some ways. I'm not saying that you have to be the person who's like, “It’s Friday so I’m going to take a hike!” but just knowing that we have those green spaces available and that they benefit your physical and mental health is really important.
So we have to focus on preserving those spaces and really taking care of them. I have two young kids, and I want to make sure that when they’re my age, they can go outside and not worry about things like not being able to take a hike because the smoke is too bad. Maybe it's half an hour to themselves, or maybe it's deeper than that, but just to know that they have the option.
Environmental education centers such as Meadowside Nature Center help the Chesapeake Bay Program meet its environmental literacy goal. Visit Chesapeake Progress to learn more.