Youngsters at Minneapolis Safety Camp receive bicycle helmets courtesy of People for Parks, a nonprofit dedicated to improving and enhancing Minneapolis parks, on Aug. 1 at Theodore Wirth Park. The organization supplied 200 helmets for campers. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Improving the parks through grassroots activism


People for Parks began in 1977 in an effort to fight the Dutch elm disease that was ravaging Minneapolis’ elm trees.

The nonprofit has since grown into an organization that has funded more than $2 million in projects across the city, from the picnic shelter and benches at Lake Harriet to Arbor Day celebrations, cross country ski trails and sports equipment.

The organization relies on donors and fundraisers such as its paver sales and 5K run to support its efforts. It provides about $40,000 funding each year for projects, serving as a fiscal agent for community groups and helping park directors respond to more immediate needs for equipment and supplies.

“Somebody who needs art supplies now, it’s going to be next year before they get the art supplies through the normal channels,” treasurer Jay Halvorson said. “We can provide that flexibility.”

People for Parks started in response to the Dutch elm epidemic that killed 30,000 of the city’s elm trees in 1977. The city partially funded the removal of the dead trees and planting of new ones, but it needed more for the effort. Some corporations were willing to help but were prohibited from donating directly to a government entity.

That led to the creation of the organization, first known as the Minneapolis Park Foundation. Corporations and their foundations donated more than $40,000 in the first two years, helping the Park Board plant more than 100,000 new trees from 1977 to 1982.

In 1979, People for Parks expanded to fund and sponsor recreational programs across the city. Its early projects included creating lighted cross-country ski trails at Theodore Wirth Park, recreation programs at Stewart Park and funding the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra.

The organization was also a major force behind the improvements at the Lake Harriet Bandshell, raising money for benches, the permeable pavers, the sound system wiring and maintenance. It raised about $800,000 to keep the Pops Orchestra playing until the orchestra established its own fundraising organization in 2002.

People for Parks also purchased for $50,000 a portable stage that can move to festivals across the city. In addition, the organization has been involved in countless horticulture projects in Minneapolis, from daffodil plantings, to buckthorn removal and Arbor Day.

Since a less active period in the early 2000s, People for Parks has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to projects across the city, such as rebuilding tennis courts, installing outdoor chess tables and swimming scholarships. The organization more recently collaborated on an effort to build a universal access playground at the Wabun Picnic Area near Minnehaha Falls.

The playground provides easy usage for people with limited mobility, from children to caregivers. It has wheelchair access to its highest platforms and kids with disabilities a place to interact with other kids in an active setting.

“A dad in a wheelchair can be on the equipment with an able bodied child, so it kind of works all different ways,” Halvorson said.

This past year, People for Parks began funding swimming scholarships in the city, providing lessons to more than 240 kids. It also donated bike helmets for more than 180 kids attending safety camp this summer and replaced basketball courts at several parks.

“We’ve been able to jump in and replace those when they need to be because otherwise, they get unusable,” Halvorson said.

Halvorson is part of an active board that meets monthly and decides which projects to fund. The organization includes people from across the city and this past spring hired a new executive director, Chriss Joyce.

Joyce said the organization is working on developing its systems and has moved its paver and bench sales online. The organization is having a new fundraising event this year, a poster sale on Oct. 13, in addition to its annual 5K on Sept. 11.


Basic info:

Contact: 612-927-2750


Year founded: 1977


By the numbers:

— $2 million: Approximate amount People Parks has donated to projects for Minneapolis parks since 1977.

— 240: Number of swimming scholarships the organization has funded over the past two years.

— $40,000: Amount in funding the organization provides annually to projects in the city.

— 100,000: Elm trees the organization helped plant from 1977 to 1982 after Dutch elm disease killed thousands of trees.

— $800,000: Amount People for Parks raised for the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra to keep it solvent through 2002 until it established its own fundraising organization


What you can do:

Join the People for Parks board. The organization is looking for more members.

Attend an upcoming event, such as its Sept. 11 walk/run and Oct. 13 poster sale.

Volunteer on one of People for Parks’ committees, join the park stewards program or purchase a bench or paver.


About the Where We Live project

This project is an ongoing series spearheaded by Journals’ publisher Janis Hall showcasing Minneapolis nonprofits doing important work in the community. The editorial team has selected organizations to spotlight. Nate Gotlieb is the writer for the project.