By Rita J. Egan
There’s a wondrous world of nature to explore along the North Shore and beyond, and Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Suffolk County Parks are challenging local children to get out of their houses and discover the natural treasures of public open spaces.
At a June 1 press conference held at Old Field Farm County Park in Stony Brook, Hahn introduced a new passport program that will combine exploring nature with a bit of technology. Suffolk Parks Commissioner Philip Berdolt, Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant as well as representatives from Boy Scout Troop 70 and Girl Scout Troop 3083 were on hand to show their support.
“Many months in the making, this pilot program expands on my earlier legislation designed to showcase Suffolk County parks,” Hahn said. “One reason I am so excited about it is because now, thanks to cooperation from our state, town and village partners, we have expanded the pilot here in the 5th Legislative District to include all the parks in the district. That means we’re able to introduce children and their families to even more great places where they can go out and get in nature right in our own backyard.”
Hahn said her 2015 sponsored legislation that established a countywide Parks Passport Program created to encourage residents to visit parks focused solely on Suffolk County managed parkland, while the new expanded pilot program includes state, town and village public lands and open spaces in the 5th Legislative District, which covers the northwest section of the Brookhaven Town. Hahn’s hope is that in the near future the county will include all park organizations countywide in a passport program, too.
The legislator said the first step in the park adventure is to obtain passport books that are available at her Port Jefferson office at 306 Main Street, local libraries and staffed county parks. Participants can also download the book by visiting suffolkcountyny.gov.
Hahn said parks in North Brookhaven include hidden “check-in” signage located along trails and elsewhere within the parks. Once a visitor discovers a sign, they can scan a QR code with their smartphone or enter the provided website address into a web browser to check-in. The reward is a printable badge that can be pasted in the passport book, which includes the majority of the parks in her legislative district, including Old Field Farm County Park, North Shore Heritage Park in Mount Sinai, Centennial Park in Port Jefferson and Sherwood-Jayne Farm Nature Trail in East Setauket.
Hahn said there is also a digital option that will issue Open Badges. The legislator’s aide Seth Squicciarino said participants can take a photo of a sign and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and a digital badge, which is compatible with any Open Badge platform, will be emailed back to them.
Once children collect and paste the 25 badges in the passport book, they can bring or email their passport to Hahn’s office to receive a certificate of completion. The legislator compared the new initiative to collecting stamps in travel passports or autographs at Disney World, and she believes children will enjoy the parks adventure.
“I am convinced children are going to love it, and what they love, they will be eager to do again and again,” she said.
Cartright said she believes the passport program will be a success with children and is a great opportunity for residents to get outside and meet other families calling it “a networking opportunity in the sun.” The councilwoman said she will be exploring the parks with her eight-month-old daughter this summer.
“I look forward to filling up my book as well,” Cartright said.
Hahn said among her hopes are that residents will appreciate their open spaces and take better care of them, citing recent dumping problems, and that families will become familiar with parks they might not have been aware of in the past.
“I’m always surprised that people don’t know about some of our wonderful treasures,” she said.
The legislator thanked park officials and staff members for installing the signs as well as her staff members, Squicciarino, Zach Baum, Alyssa Turano and May Zegarelli, for all their help in developing the program.
“This summer there will be children on a summer-long scavenger hunt,” she said. “Some day they will be grandparents bringing their grandchildren to the same parks, boasting gently about the summer they filled their passport book with badges.”