The lids of the large boxes of delicious looking pan dulce were lifted by refuge volunteers as four buses opened their doors at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Children in strollers, grandmothers and parents spilled out into the morning air eager to see what you can see at a .
Día de los Niños is a day to celebrate children in many Latino cultures. Mauricio Valadrian is co-developer of Northwest Family Daycation, part of the Intertwine Alliance and partner with the Portland-Vancouver Urban Refuge Program. The Daycation mission is to connect historically marginalized communities and families with young children with nature and fun. This day, he had collaborated with three groups to do just that. Latino Network, Multnomah Education Service District Migrant Education Program, and Líderes Naturales are all organizations that elevate and celebrate Latino communities in the metro area. Mauricio told refuge staff that within 20 minutes of the organizations sending the announcement of this event, 80 people had already signed up. On April 29, 2023, we celebrated Día de los Niños and were honored to host about 200 visitors.
Pan dulce in hand, we welcomed the families into a large white tent set up at the entrance to the refuge. I was first to speak. Although I am Hispanic and grew up in a bilingual household and a primarily Spanish-speaking community, it had been quite a while since I had practiced speaking conversationally with non-English speakers. Taking the plunge, I welcomed our guests to the refuge in English first. When I followed with, “Hace mucho tiempo que no practico el español pero me gustaría mucho poder practicar con ustedes,” suddenly the whole crowed smiled and nodded their heads. Reassured, I continued my welcome in Spanish.
I told them that a wildlife refuge was where we protect wildlife, but it is also a place for community, families, schools and more. I shared my excitement in welcoming them to a place I call home, and that at the end of the day, I hoped they would call the refuge home too. Mauricio, full of vibrancy and passion, hopped on a chair and elaborated on the day’s events to come. On occasion, the crowd would laugh or cheer and soon scattered to line up for guided walks.
Within 10 minutes of our start, the welcome tent was a ghost town. We offered walks on geology, birds, plants and a bus tour. Every single person opted for a guided tour, including the bus drivers! Families could also wander and enjoy a number of activities and crafts right around the welcome tent.
As a refuge with a very small number of staff, the prospect of such a large community event was daunting, but it was important. If I was welcoming the community to my home, I wanted it to feel like home. So I reached out to all of the Spanish-speaking U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service colleagues, neighbors and volunteers within the immediate area. They were eager to celebrate this community with us and create a beautiful marriage of expertise, perspective, culture and comfort. Mauricio and his wife Eva played animal-sound-guessing games at their big red Daycation tent. Event partner Hike it Baby donated bikes, backpacks and more for a fun raffle for a large group of eager children of all ages.
I mostly floated from spot-to-spot, bringing water bottles as the day got hotter, answering questions, and listening to stories. I also spent time in our conference room where children worked on crafts. Music by Julieta Venegas softly called to kids from the deck and small white masks of a killdeer, beaver, owl or deer rested on a table waiting to be colored. Crayons were scattered on each table and tiny hands chose favorites. Rainbow-colored animals were held up to their proud faces as they blinked at me to see what I thought of their final product. “Muy bien!” I’d say, “me gusta mucho!” Often a parent or grandmother would join in on the coloring. “Cómo se dice killdeer en español?” I’d ask. A father and I laughed realizing neither of us knew. He looked it up. “Chorlo Tildío,” he said. We both nodded with eyebrows raised, expressing satisfaction from learning something new.
Mel Sánchez, a fantastic, bilingual birding volunteer, hosted a spotting scope when not leading one of the guided bird walks. Parents were very excited to see the birds swirl above them and would call the kids to look too by saying “Mira! Mira!” Several pairs of binoculars hung on a sign for families to use, and a woman and I smiled at each other when we realized she was using them backwards. “Pensaste que los pájaros aquí eran muy pequeños, no?” I joked and we both laughed as she flipped them around to look through again, magnified this time.
When the sun was directly overhead, it was time for lunch. The Friends of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge funded the catering of free burritos for everyone. Families sat together under the shade of the tents, a teenager braided her mom’s long hair as they laughed, children played with bubbles in the parking lot and cold water began leaving the cooler with more frequency. After lunch, the tours began again, and visitors continued to explore the refuge.
The afternoon grew hotter and the heavy sun slipped lower toward the horizon. Slowly, the families returned from the trails and one by one, filled their buses. I hopped on each bus with a handful of posters. Satiated by the day, they thanked me, and I thanked them for visiting. “Muchas gracias por visitarnos, amigos,” I said as I stepped back down the steps. They drove off and we waved at each other through the bus window. Tired and fulfilled, our team put the tables and chairs away, the music silenced and the spotting scope went back in its home in the office corner. “I hope I’ll see them again,” I thought. “I hope they come home again soon.”
*Author's note: I would like to thank all of the dedicated people who made this event come to fruition: Refuge staff, apprentices, the Friends of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Northwest Daycation, Latino Network, Multnomah Education Service District Migrant Education Program, Líderes Naturales, volunteers, Portland-Vancouver Urban Wildlife Refuge Program, Office of Communications, Washington Fish and Aquatic Conservation Office and our numerous partners in the Ridgefield community.
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is a home for wildlife – and people too! The refuge welcomes people of all backgrounds and abilities to connect with nature. From birdwatching to hiking to hunting – even an auto tour – there is a way for people to experience their natural heritage. For more information on events at the refuge and how to plan your visit: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/ridgefield