JACKSON, Wyo. — Azael Mendoza sat in the front seat of a patrol vehicle giggling and setting off sirens in Grand Teton National Park.
“I liked pushing the buttons,” he said in Spanish to translator Fio Lazarte.
Azael, 3, came to the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Moose with his family for National Junior Ranger Day.
Sirens blared through the air as kids pushed any button they could get their hands on. Others touched bear pelts and ran in and out of a bear trap. Inside the visitor center kids crawled through a “night” hike, encountering nocturnal animals.
This Junior Ranger Day was special for Azael — it was his first time in Grand Teton National Park.
When he walked up to the patrol vehicle he seemed apprehensive. But when the ranger walked over and invited him to explore the SUV he brightened up.
Azael is part of the “Roll Into Readiness” program, which works with low-income families to connect them with the community. It’s a six-organization community outreach effort that includes Teton Literacy Center and the Children’s Learning Center.
“We encourage our families to come and visit the parks,” said Lazarte, a teacher at Teton Literacy Center and volunteer for the day. “This was a great day to make it happen.”
Lazarte ran into another student, Gael Hernandez, 5, as he was “trying out” the park’s ambulance and stretcher.
Gael was excited as he was lifted up and down in the stretcher. Then he got to go inside the ambulance and explore.
“It’s his first time here,” said his father, Israel. “This is really, really nice. It’s cool that they let them go inside the cars.”
Programming for Junior Ranger Day was provided in Spanish and English. The “Roll Into Readiness” program has partnered with the event for two years.
It’s great for making community members feel welcome in the national park, said Millie Jimenez, community engagement and volunteer coordinator for Grand Teton. Only so many rangers are bilingual, so the translated booklet is helpful for families.
“It’s easy to not feel welcome when something is not in the language that you speak,” she said.
Jimenez said the law enforcement vehicles could seem intimidating to some kids, so being able to talk with the rangers in a fun environment is essential.
“When you have someone there that says, ‘Welcome, come hang out,’ it makes a difference,” she said.
Grand Teton National Park has celebrated National Junior Ranger Day since 2008, said Kristen Dragoo, education coordinator and a lead interpreter for the park’s Moose district.
Kids get to come out and learn about the park, all while having fun.
There are plenty of opportunities like that in the summer, Dragoo said, but because of Junior Ranger Day’s April date the crowd has more locals than the summer events.
“It feels like more of a community event,” she said.
Some years the event is themed, and others it is simply focused on the park. Last year there was an emphasis on and celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial.
This year there will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience a total solar eclipse, right in Grand Teton National Park.
“It seemed like such a good opportunity to talk about night skies and solar eclipses,” she said.
The theme this year was “To the Tetons and Beyond.” Rangers partnered with Wyoming Stargazing and the Jackson Hole Astronomy Club to bring in an inflatable planetarium, safe “sun” gazing and other night-sky-themed activities.
It’s a great chance for kids to see all types of park rangers, Jimenez said.
“Families see a lot of the rangers at the booth, but how many times do you get to see a firefighter, an ambulance, snowplow or patrol vehicle?” she said.
“It’s easy to think a ranger can only do biology or only talk to people at a desk, but learning that you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up and join the Park Service is special.”
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com.