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Jessica Morales, a student at Minneapolis' Whittier School, is a veteran of school and park summer programs. She regularly joins other grade-schoolers to connect with teen and young adult mentors as they hike, bicycle and canoe city lakes, plant trees, raise vegetables and establish water-conserving pollinator gardens.

"It's fun to learn about nature with your friends," said 12-year-old Morales.

It's especially fun to learn from "Nacho" — a.k.a. ringleader Jeff "Nacho" Carlson, community education coordinator at Whittier, who doesn't confine his work to inside a building.

"I've been in this program with Nacho since I was 6," said Morales, who said she loves bicycling and gardening.

"I want to become a 'teen leader.' I will earn money, go to college and maybe be a teacher."

Carlson coordinates after-school programs in myriad subjects for community members, as well as Art Buddies, which pairs Whittier students with professionals from the worlds of art, design and business.

And he partners with adjacent Whittier Park staff, foresters, nonprofits and businesses to ensure that 150-plus Whittier kids have an educational and unforgettable summer, be it on school grounds, adjacent Whittier Park, Minnehaha Park or the Mississippi River. They hike, bike, plant and connect water to environmental stewardship, nutrition and public health.

"It's amazing for kids to learn outside a classroom about water, how to swim and canoe, plant vegetables and trees, and take responsibility for watering them with our 'bucket brigade' of coolers and wagons," Carlson said.

"They understand how rain gardens pool and conserve water. And they know what storm drains are and how to keep them clear."

Carlson views his work as a joyous community calling. He lives in the multicultural Whittier neighborhood with his family, including two daughters who graduated from Whittier School, and his wife, Monica Mesa, a native of Colombia and the administrator of a nearby church. He speaks some Swedish and Somali, and is fluent in Spanish.

Jeff Carlson helped a crew transform a weedy patch at Whittier School into a pollinator garden while others tended to trees and vegetable gardens at the school-park complex in south Minneapolis.
Jeff Carlson helped a crew transform a weedy patch at Whittier School into a pollinator garden while others tended to trees and vegetable gardens at the school-park complex in south Minneapolis., Star Tribune

Carlson, 45, who grew up in Minnetonka in the 1980s, got interested in the city through his grandfather, a Lutheran clergyman in the Elliot Park neighborhood. The younger Carlson, a St. Olaf College graduate, got dubbed Nacho while working as a Spanish instructor during college summers at Concordia Language Villages.

He arrived at Whittier School a decade ago, after several years at Wellstone International High School, for English learners.

"Nacho is immersed in the betterment of the Whittier Neighborhood," said Rebecca Lewis, director of Whittier Park. "He works with park board staff on collaborative programming. And he's incredibly engaged with the community and its youth.

"Nacho knows many folks and gets us discounted field trips, plants, used bikes and parts. The more collaborative we can be, the better.''

Carlson's workweek typically stretches into weekends, including bike repairs out of a shop in his garage. He leaves tire-repair tools on his porch.

"A lot of people have hobbies, like yoga or going to the gym," Carlson said. "If I volunteer on the weekend with bikes or gardening … that's also my hobby. I enjoy it and the exercise. If a kid comes to the porch with a flat tire …. it's a joy to teach. The idea is to help them become more resourceful."

Carlson's family eschews a car, preferring to walk, ride bikes and use public transportation.

"I don't have to see the world through a car windshield, so it is easier to say hello to people on the sidewalk, or to notice a bumblebee on a flower," Carlson said.

Denise Malmgren, a Whittier teacher, said Carlson has been successful at building meaningful relationships and connecting families, volunteers, non-profits and businesses within and outside of the school building.

"The younger students look forward to the day that they, too, can become mentors," she said.

Fartoun Ali, 20, a nursing student at Concordia University in St. Paul, has worked in Carlson's summer programs for several years. She loves watching kids connect with the environment. Good health includes clean air, water and nutrition.

Whittier Park employee Daniella Valero, 25, agreed. "We can use nature to connect with each other," said Valero, a Whittier program alumnus. "The children are here for the biking, swimming, planting and growing. The fun of it. They also learn and remember."

One August morning, Carlson watched children tend a flourishing perennial rain garden at Whittier School. The cardinal flowers, great blue lobelia and obedient plant bloomed and buzzed with bees in a formerly neglected patch of weeds the children had transformed.

"I learn more from campers, staff and families than the other way around," Carlson said. "Whittier is a beautiful community with a rising tide of young leaders.''

Some Whittier kids also are challenged by poverty, single-parent homes and crime. But Carlson believes that positive school and community connections can help kids surmount difficulties and establish vision and roots of a better future.

"There also is so much talent. And joy," he said.

"We need to nurture them, just as we do the plants and trees."