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Volunteer Spotlights
MPA seeders Mounds Park Academy

Making learning joyful.

It was that belief that spawned Mounds Park Academy, a local area prep school, just over three decades ago. It’s also that belief that inspires Courtney Nagle and Patti Meras to find innovative learning opportunities for their 5th grade students. Year after year, the two teachers help to organize Group Impact Volunteering Events (GIVEs), a volunteer program offered by Saint Paul Parks and Recreation perfect for groups, especially students.

“After we were done,” says Laura, a now 7th grader who participated in GIVEs at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Indian Mounds Regional Park. “I felt really happy because we had helped someone and made a difference.”

That difference? More than 600 hours over the years planting trees, harvesting seeds, and removing garlic mustard, a troublesome invasive species, and more than 100 mugs, decorated by students and staff, donated to the community.

The effort — part of a day of volunteering that reflects the academy’s goal of creating a holistic, experiential, and social learning environment. After the GIVEs, students round out their day by helping to pack meals for Feed My Starving Children in Eagan.

As for homework? Essays on environmentalism and volunteerism are, of course, required. Luckily for Nagle and Meras, students welcome the challenge.
MPA Group

Don Poplau

Interpret this.

A tour guide for one of the most beautiful natural areas in Saint Paul. An educator of 40 years — formerly a high school principal at Mankato East High School and currently a professor at Walden University. A father of three children — two living in Minnesota, one residing in Arizona.

Your interpretation? If it doesn’t begin with Don and end in Poplau, it’s not even close.

Since the summer of 2013, Don Poplau has volunteered as a Hike It! Interpreter at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, providing guests with insights into the wildlife and the history associated with the former industrial sight. This, an easy interpretation as he possesses several graduate degrees from the University of St. Thomas and professes a love for the outdoors.

His love for experiential education, on the other hand? As clear as translating English to English. Poplau also volunteers as an interpreter for both the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Don Poplau 1
Don Poplau 2

Debby Smith

Debby Smith

A Garden Steward managing one garden is admirable.

Two gardens? Commendable.

Three? Debby Smith.

The veteran Garden Steward keeps three gardens around Como Lake looking fresh and beautiful all throughout the year. A volunteer since 2009, Smith began her stewardship at the East Gateway Gardens where her loving care has sprouted tulips and daffodils that wax and wane with the seasons. She has since added the Round Garden and the North Como Garden under her wing — or very green thumb.

When not gardening, Smith splits time between volunteering with Simpson Housing and caring for her grandson. She particularly, though, enjoys meeting passersby who become mesmerized by her plants. “They connect you to different times of your life, your memories,” Smith says of the gardens.

No doubt, that includes her family and her friends that she has made as a star Garden Steward.


With millions of visitors a year to any attraction comes the inevitable attraction between liter and the earth. Luckily, there’s a group for that.

Lots of groups.

For the past several years, senior leaders at HealthPartners have galvanized their employees to become Park Stewards, volunteers who maintain the cleanliness of parks throughout Saint Paul. Their park of choice? Saint Paul’s most popular: Como Regional Park.

“Our group enjoyed working together to clean up around Como Lake, and it was great to give back to our community,” says Meghan Fugitt, a senior quality coordinator for HealthPartners’ Care Innovation and Measurement department.

In total, over 500 hours of work have been dedicated by Park Stewards from the local healthcare provider. Many of those hours, from Appointment Center operators and Information Systems and Technology specialists.

“It was especially motivating when our group was thanked for keeping the park clean by walkers, bikers, and runners!” Fugitt continues.

That motivation keeps HealthPartners returning year after year.
HealthPartners Clean Up Crew
HealthPartners Clean Up Crew2

Questions? Contact Ryanna Jackson, Volunteer Coordinator, at or 651-632-2411.

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