A Lake County nonprofit group has found a way to introduce the Hispanic community to nature, provide some physical fitness and create a multicultural resource all in one program.
The free guided bilingual nature hikes sponsored by Friends of Ryerson Woods and the Lake County Forest Preserve District and several community partners has continued to grow and gain popularity over the four years it has been offered, organizers say.
What began in 2010 with just four hikes attended by an average of 30 people now offers 12 hikes annually with an average attendance of 50, said Sophie Twichell, executive director of Friends of Ryerson Woods
"We really want people to feel welcomed and invited to use the forest preserves," Twichell said. "And so providing interpretation in the language that is most comfortable to them seems obvious as a way to get people out into nature."
The main goal is to introduce the preserves as a free resource for locals to use, though Twichell said many of the area's Hispanic residents most likely feel distanced from the nature scene in Lake County.
These hikes offer an opportunity to help a community that she says often has health issues relating to lack of physical activity.
"The Latino community is struggling with a lot of health concerns in some higher amounts ... diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity. Getting out can help alleviate those problems," Twichell said.
The hikes are guided by Nan Buckardt, Lake County Forest Preserves' director of environmental education and public affairs, who mostly conveys information through easy-to-understand stories about the local wildlife. Those stories are translated into Spanish by Marcela Alva, the Latino Outreach Coordinator for Friends of Ryerson Wood.
Alva said it can be difficult for recent transplants from Mexico to understand the concept of American nature preserves. She said public nature preserves in Mexico are quite rare, which is why she and Buckardt focus on building bonds between hikers and the local environment.
That's also why Friends of Ryerson Woods has paired up with what Twitchell called "trusted partners" -- local Hispanic resource organizations that spread the word about the program.
Mano A Mano, a family resource center for Lake County Hispanics, is one of those partners. Administrative manager Carla Rosales said one of Mano A Mano's health care promoters would often take her children on the hikes.
"She is happy that she did because now her children know the name of birds and love the nature," Rosales said.
Twichell said she has heard anecdotal evidence of Hispanic families coming back to the parks on their own and introducing family and friends to them. She said results like these are what her organization has sought.
While on the bilingual nature hikes, participants are provided with Spanish translation of trail information and maps.
Buckardt said sometimes native English speakers will come to listen to the Spanish translations to improve their own Spanish language skills.
"I love being able to help get people excited about nature. For many of the people that go on the hikes, they're discovering new places to explore," Buckardt said.
The next guided bilingual nature hike is 9 a.m. Saturday, July 13, at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Lake Villa. More info can be found at www.ryersonwoods.org/programs/bilingualprograms.