Students from the GAP school have put in 1,310 hours since 2015 improving our parks.

Located on the West Side of Saint Paul, GAP School serves approximately 200 youth and young adults (ages 18-24) annually through education and enrichment; training that leads to employment; and social and emotional supports.  The parks team actually request GAP volunteers because they are so phenomenal to work with!

We talked with Tony Zahradka, the Director of Employment and Training at GAP to learn more about the connection between his students and Saint Paul parks.

How did you get started connecting your students with parks?

After 6 years, I’m not sure how the connection started, but it’s a natural fit with our students on the construction jobs track who love hands on work and being outside. As a Youthbuild Americorps program we serve students who have aged out of schools but still need their GED. Most are English Language learners from Asia and East Africa.

What projects have your students done?

Everything from weeding to tree planting to hauling brush and spreading mulch around Como pool. Our students have taken out a lot of buckthorn and burdock! In North St Paul, our students have even built pavilions and fishing piers. One year we collected prairie seeds at Phalen and then got to plant them at Como. Our students are hard workers who enjoy getting the job done.

What have been the most personally rewarding experiences for your students?

Every volunteer job creates a sense of pride and increases practical skills – “I planted that, I built that.” We cleaned up the gateway trail near Arlington and 35E, removing truckloads of trash. In addition to everything you might expect to find, we took out mattresses, tires and shopping carts. Many of our students are Karen and live near that location. They enjoyed working in their home community where they got to see the fruits of their labor every day.

In addition to building ownership, volunteer projects also help them discover park resources they didn’t know about, like when they did planting in Mounds Park which was new to them.

What are some of the things you most want to accomplish next with your programs at GAP?

We really want to continue our strong relationship with parks. When students graduate they are interested in continuing to volunteer in parks on an ongoing basis. Maybe we can even adopt a park or garden. 

What are your favorite parks and why?

I love Phalen and spent almost every day there growing up. There are so many options from swimming and fishing to the playground and golfing. The almost undeveloped shoreline is rare to find in the city.