Volunteers celebrate fifty years of service to nature and students

For the past five decades, volunteers have offered children eye-opening experiences at St. Croix Valley site




7 minute read

Supported by Lee & Rose Warner Nature Center:

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Children follow volunteers on hikes through woods and prairies, on snowshoes across frozen lakes, delight in discoveries made by dipping nets in marshes for frogs and dragonflies, and see the science of bird-banding while getting a close-up look at many special species.

Trips to Lee & Rose Warner Nature Center have opened many young eyes to the wonders of nature over the past 50 years — the oldest private nature center in Minnesota celebrated its golden anniversary last year. Among 900 acres of oak and maple forests, prairies, wetlands and lakes in rural Washington County, Warner continues to provide singular experiences.

Very importantly, the programs are free for schools, making it available to students from all over the Twin Cities. The outdoor opportunities are offered at no charge thanks to the generosity of its founders and funders — and staff naturalists and volunteers who introduce the children to the woods, wetlands, and wildlife.

Many of the same people have donated their time for decades, and some of the volunteers have been there since the beginning. Almost a dozen have at least 30 years of service each, including: Gerry Erickson (45 years), Bonnie Handy (47), JoAnn Hondlik (49), Joan Huneke (35), Pat Markwardt (36), Joen Overby (47), Missy Patty (51), Jan Roeske (29), Jean Royer (34), Marie Sweeny (49), and Barb Wojahn (50).

“It’s a day off from your regular life, and you get to focus on children and teaching them whatever you need to teach them that day, whether its birds or aquatics or deer,” says Bonnie Handy.

“You drive in here when you’re going to be volunteering for the day, everything in your life goes away,” Barb Wojahn says. “When you’re driving home, all of the sudden, it comes back.”

An escape, and an education. With extensive training, and countless days outdoors, they have learned about teaching effectively, keeping the kids happy and safe, and of course, all about their natural neighbors, from bugs to birds.

“I didn’t know I could learn so much, without going to brick and mortar school,” says Joan “Honeybee” Huneke.

The women are part of a volunteer corps that is at the heart of everything Warner does.

‘Never stop learning’

The longtime volunteers’ wits are sharp, their bodies are strong, and their bonds are as deep as any family. They say their good health and clear minds are a benefit of volunteering, thanks to a lifetime outside, studying nature, learning with the children.

“Do you suppose that because we had to learn all the small details it is pushing us to not get Alzheimer’s?” Missy Patty asks. Her friends quickly nod and agree.

They have learned the names and ways of plants and animals. They have learned how to tell the sex of warblers, and identify the blooms of wildflowers. How to see the stories in animal tracks on fresh snow. They received a lasting lesson about how progress can infringe on nature, and have unintended consequences, when the county paved a road next to the nature center. After years of dusty drives, some of them cheered at first, but then they saw how the asphalt surface caused runoff that harmed the center’s unique and beloved bog.

They have learned how to open children’s eyes in awe of Minnesota’s natural ecosystems. They learned from the center’s staff, particularly founding director Bernie Fashingbauer, his successor Tom Anderson, and current director Ron Lawrenz, they learned from each other, from nature itself, and from the students.

“Never stop learning, I say that to the kids,” Barb Wojahn says. “I tell them we have to learn new things all the time. That’s what keeps our brains going. It helps keep us young. There aren’t many days [at Warner] where I don’t feel like I am challenged in some way.”

Natural stewards

The longest-serving volunteers got started in the mid-1960s through the Junior League of St. Paul. The organization promoting women’s volunteerism and community leadership had partnered with the Science Museum of Minnesota to develop the nature center, one of the first in the nation, and supplied funds and a regiment of committed volunteers to get it off the ground.

Most of the volunteers were from St. Paul, many from White Bear Lake, a few others from around the St. Croix Valley. They had a variety of backgrounds — most of them had enjoyed nature as children — but didn’t have any formal training. They jumped at the chance to spend a day outside with children.

“It’s given me satisfaction, confidence, a job,” says Jean Royer, who went from Warner to working at the Raptor Center, before returning to the nature center as soon as she retired.

Some of the volunteers never left. They have broad expertise from years of volunteering and regular training, and bring those decades of experience observing nature and communicating it to children. They also are proud of their accumulated knowledge and the continuity they contribute.

As other volunteers and staff have come and gone, these long-serving volunteers developed a strong sense of ownership. They see themselves as stewards of the nature center’s legacy, determined to see its tradition of eye-opening experiences continue.

So far, they have succeeded.

Beholding birds

One day in May, Missy Patty was standing at a small table under a tree near the center’s main building. One of Warner’s original volunteers, she was perfectly comfortable holding a song sparrow in one hand while with her other hand she carefully wrapped a tiny metal band around its leg and recorded numbers in a thick ledger on the desk.

A dozen third-graders leaned in as close as they could get to the bird and the calm woman who held it. Patty picked up a straw and blew air through it at the bird’s belly, asking the students if they could see the exposed skin of the stomach, which the bird will use to warm the eggs

Banding birds has been a key part of volunteering at Warner since the start. It not only gives students a chance to see species up-close that many people never see from a distance, but also shares with them how citizens can collect valuable scientific data. And it has made the volunteers acutely aware of how the environment has changed since they started.

“We used to get 100 birds a day in the spring, 20 birds in the net at a time,” Barb Wojahn says. Now their efforts average about 40 birds per day. It mirrors other population trends as habitat has been lost to development and agriculture.

Banding is tough and tricky work, requiring big, expensive nets to be hung in the woods, and experienced net-runners to retrieve the birds that get caught, and to identify each one, determine the sex and age, secure a leg band, and release it back into the air unharmed. The volunteers do all this — with a curious audience of children watching and asking questions — after years of on-the-job training with the seasoned staff.

Curiosity rewarded

After more than 45,000 birds banded, the citizen scientists are still excited every time they set up the nets.

“We’re always trying to get a species that we’ve never banded before, sometimes we get a little wild about setting nets,” Missy Patty says.

The crew recently caught a Black-billed cuckoo, their first in 50 years.

The chance of seeing something new still excites them after many years. Gerry Erickson recalls a day she and a group of students stumbled on a dragonfly hatch, and they watched transfixed as the larvae climbed out of the water and transformed into their flying form.

“There was no way to pull the kids away from that, we were late to bird banding,” she said. “I’ve never seen it since.”

Marie Sweeny recalls a day canoeing on Terrapin Lake and seeing a freshwater sponge under the water. Not even the director knew the creatures lived at the nature center before then. “I just happened to find it because the kids are slow with the paddling,” Sweeny said, remembering how they zig-zagged down the lake.

The volunteers point to their ongoing enthusiasm for the natural world as essential for effective environmental education. The students pick up on it and get excited, too. That leads to curiosity, and ultimately, a greater appreciation of the complex connections and remarkable specializations found in nature.

The passion has been there since Warner’s first day, and has only grown.

Camaraderie and companionship

When the nature center opened its doors in 1967, many of the volunteers were full-time mothers who didn’t work outside the home. One day a week at Warner was a precious chance to contribute to the community, to meet and see friends, and to enjoy the peace, beauty, and wonder of the natural world.

Not only did they learn about plants and animals, they learned valuable skills like teaching and public-speaking,

“I learned that I was able to do things I didn’t know I could do,” Hondlik says.

Many of the volunteers also became close friends, supporting each other through tough times.

“It was just a lifesaver at the time when things were tough,” Royer says. The group stuck together through the challenges of parenting and marriages, and in recent years, the onset of Alzheimer’s and other ailments related to aging. “We look out for each other,” Sweeny says.

They think of themselves as family, with the kind of deep, long-lasting relationship normally reserved for siblings. They have depended on each other to figure out species of plants and animals, and how to get through to kids. They also depended on each other to figure out their own lives.

“I get along better with people,” Missy Patty says. “I’m an only child. I’m independent, didn’t have a brother or sister to lean on. Now I do.”

The natural world has also become another old friend, another brother or sister, thanks to frequent and lifelong interaction. As they walk the trails, the volunteers remember stumps that were once tall trees and where their class saw a sleeping fawn hidden behind a log, where they saw both a muskrat and a beaver by their holes in the lake ice one winter day.

Life-changing love 

“I’ve grown a better appreciation of the natural world and it makes you realize this wasn’t an accident, this was created, it’s something to observe and to give thanks for, too,” Roeske says. “Whenever I really want to unwind, it makes it easier to withdraw, and find that spot in yourself that rejuvenates you.”

That “spot” might be where they store memories like the time a Worm-eating warbler showed up in the nets, hundreds of miles from its native range. They smile when they remember losing an earring in the bog despite warnings to leave jewelry at home, or the happy faces of kids caught outside in the rain, delighting in a surprise soaking.

Meanwhile, thousands of children around Minnesota and beyond certainly remember their patience, their curiosity and knowledge, and their love for nature.


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One response to “Volunteers celebrate fifty years of service to nature and students”

  1. Barb Wojahn Avatar
    Barb Wojahn

    And now Warner is closing. All in the name of greed???


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Volunteers celebrate fifty years of service to nature and students