If you’d visited St. Paul’s tucked-away Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary on Wednesday October 8, about midday, you’d have witnessed an impressive gathering of civic leaders and citizens, celebrating the recent acquisition of the Lowertown Depot as the site for a new interpretive center for the sanctuary.
But it was the unremarkable sight of a group of about a dozen teens hanging out together in the shade, discreetly talking, laughing and eating, that turned out to be the extraordinary occurrence amidst the speech-making.
“It is a big thing that we bought a building there,” says Tsuehue Xiong, one of the teens in attendance and an intern with the East Side Conservation Corps, which provides summertime habitat restoration labor at the site. “It’s a celebration. Our supervisors always say we win these awards [for East Side restoration projects], but we never go, and this time we got there. I talked with my supervisor, and we figured out how to get all the kids there.”
Maikou Yang is another youth who’s been involved in the Conservation Corps’ work to restore habitat at the Vento site. Her voice was heard during Wednesday’s program when pre-recorded oral histories, part of an initiative called “Listen to the Voices,” were played. Yang’s story recalled an incident when the interns all got blistered hands while cutting ragweed. When they complained, their supervisor suggested they “quit being on the bitter bus”—until he ended up with blisters as well. Three other recorded stories included a family recollection of Sue Vento, wife of the late congressman for whom the sanctuary is named.
The East Side Conservation Corps is one of several youth programs operated by the Community Design Center (CDC). Part of the mission of the private non-profit CDC is to connect low income and recent immigrant community youth, such as the Hmong, with positive outdoors and gardening experiences, according to Ruth Murphy, past director of the center.
Among the speakers who addressed the gathering Wednesday were Congresswoman Betty McCollum, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, the Lower Phalen Creek Project’s Carol Carey, and state Senator Mee Moua. Moua, whose district includes the sanctuary, recalled walking with her family in the sanctuary recently, when one of her children noticing the odd sight of a tree growing from the top of the abandoned depot building. She replied “if a tree can grow out of the top of a building, think what you can become!” Moua expressed the hope that in future days, when her family looked back on her support for funding for the Sanctuary, they’d say “you know, that old grandma, she got something right at the legislature.”
Xiong says what he found most impressive about Wednesday’s event was the number of people who attended, roughly 100. “When we first starting working there, there was no one. We hardly ever see anyone.”
Paul Purman lives and writes from St. Paul’s Mounds Park neighborhood. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org