If you spend much time in Central Park's north end, you may already know Sparks Grassly, Tim Ferrara and Mike O'Grady. The three are the Conservancy's first Discovery Guides, new staff members who act as liaisons between the Conservancy and the Parkgoers we serve. Armed with Park maps and tablet computers, Sparks, Tim and Mike are stationed in the north end prepared to answer just about any question a visitor can ask. "We're like the 'more information' button on a website," Tim said. And if they don't have an answer, they'll find it.
"This fall, a woman came up to me and asked the name of a particular seed pod," Sparks said. Knowing nothing more than a short visual description of the pod and the general area of the Park where it was seen, the Guides were able to use the Conservancy's resources to figure out it was the Kentucky Coffeetree that produced the pods.
Most interactions with visitors aren't so challenging, but even the simplest encounter can lead to enhancing a visitor's experience in the Park. Mike recalls meeting a woman taking photos in the Conservatory Garden. They started talking about how much she loves the Garden and eventually she asked how she could volunteer in the Park. Later that same day, a visitor stopped Mike to ask how he could donate. That simple question became a long conversation about their backgrounds and how much they both love the Harlem Meer.
The Guides are already seeing the impact of their work. Walking by the Harlem Meer recently, Tim saw a large group of people feeding ducks. He approached the group to let them know that feeding can actually harm the ducks, but when he reached them he noticed another Park visitor conveying just that. Then he realized he recognized her: just a few weeks ago, he had stopped her from feeding ducks. When the group left, she told him that since speaking to her, she's replaced her habit of feeding the ducks with the habit of educating others about the dangers of feeding the ducks. "I always had the duck's best interest in mind," she told him, "this way I'm actually helping them!"
It's not easy for even the most regular Parkgoers to keep up with all 843 acres of Central Park, so by meeting and building relationships with visitors, the Discovery Guides are able to connect people with programs, events and areas of the Park specifically suited for them that they might not know about.
And they're meeting many people. With at least one of the Guides in the Park at all times during daylight hours, seven days a week, the trio engages with almost 3,000 visitors per month. Some of these interactions are just a few words. Others continue for hours. Sometimes, Tim says, a visitor will apologize for talking to him for a long time. "Not at all," Tim tells them, "this is my job."
If you're in the north end, look out for Sparks, Tim and Mike and say hi! This winter, the Guides can be seen wearing black jackets with the Conservancy's bright green logo. In warmer months, the Guides wear bright white shirts with the name "Discovery Guide" written in large letters. "You can't miss us," Sparks says. The Conservancy plans to expand the program this spring.
As one of the Conservancy's five visitor centers, parkgoers can find information on Park events and programs at the Dairy. Maps, guides and gifts are also available, all of which support the Conservancy’s mission.