Energy Creates Connections

November 23, 2022


Nobody has to work. No swearing. No smoking. These are the rules of the Crow River Trail Guards, a Paynesville youth organization dedicated to making the world they live in a better place by providing a safe, educational environment. Of course, everyone works while they are there, but the concept is to provide a safe, fun place for kids to meet, be with each other, learn, practice respect, and be a good role model.

Crow River Trail Guards is a non-profit organization that recently received funds from the Stearns Electric Association’s Operation Round Up® Program to help pave one of the trails so it can be handicap accessible.

Founded in 1992, Crow River Trail Guards evolved from the State of Minnesota “Clean the River” program, which the City of Paynesville participated in during the 1980s and 1990s. It was there that organization founder Tom Koshiol was convinced to take over the “Clean the River” program. Koshiol proposed a new trail system along the North Fork of the Crow River.

Koshiol rounded up some volunteers who began clearing trails in the area. According to Koshiol, kids were naturally drawn to the area and the clearing activities that were happening, so he put them to work. “They asked to be trail guides and guide folks along the new trails,” Koshiol said. “I told them what we really needed were trail ‘guards’ to guard the new trails from vandals and troublemakers.”

And that’s how the Crow River Trail Guards came about.

Today, volunteers, who are typically ages eight to 19, spend three hours each Saturday morning from April through October completing projects throughout the 12-acre nature park.

“It’s all kid-driven,” Beth, a parent and staff member, explained. “We supervise to make sure everyone is safe, but the kids really do all the work.”

In addition to the weekly Saturday events, the Crow River Trail Guards allows kids to earn other outdoor experiences as well. This includes trips to the boundary waters, white water rafting experiences, a fall fishing day and even an international bicycle trip, among many other things.

“There’s always a competition of who can get the most points in a year,” Beth said.

Kids earn two points for every hour they volunteer on Saturday mornings, and one point for wearing their Trail Guards shirt. Points are then turned in for experiences throughout the year.

Another annual initiative is the “My Room” project. “This is where we do a complete bedroom makeover for one deserving Trail Guard,” Koshiol explained. “Having a safe, comfortable space to call your own is important to everyone. So, every winter, volunteers and Trail Guards team up to paint, redecorate, refresh and renew one bedroom for their peers.”

Additionally, the Trail Guards host one winter community event – the Moonlight Meander. “Each February, we invite the community to join us for a free night out in the Nature Park, Koshiol explained. “We light the trails with luminaries and sponsors build bonfires to warm trail-goers along the way. It’s a great event that draws about 200 community members!”

The Trail Guards program is a community staple. Many of the kids involved today have parents who were involved years ago.

Such is the case with Beth, who joined Trail Guards when she was 10. Today, her children are all involved. Two of them just got back from a bike trip in Argentina.

Harmony (9) and Silas (7) said their mom started coming to Trail Guards when she was little. And now that they live in the community once again, their mom got them involved too.

“My favorite part of Trail Guards is the forest,” Harmony said. “It’s always so shady and it’s so fun to play in it.”

“I love that we can just skirt around in the woods,” Silas added.

“When my kids and I moved here, we didn’t know anyone,” parent volunteer Taylor recalled. “But someone told us about Trail Guards and now we come every week.”

It truly is a small community that shows up each Saturday morning. Kids and parent volunteers arrive by 9 a.m. and participate in the welcome circle. Everyone does introductions and the rules and purpose of the Trail Guards are reviewed. Once assignments are handed out, the kids get to work.

Mid-morning, there is a healthy snack break. It’s during this time that there is often a guest speaker or short educational presentation. After this, the kids get back to work and the morning always wraps up with a meal.

“Over 370 local kids have been involved in Crow River Trail Guards and have built it to what it is today,” Koshiol explained. “When we are down here, we are all just friends. At least that’s what the kids tell me.”

The Stearns Electric Association Trust Board of Directors met on Thursday, October 27 to award funds through the Cooperative’s Operation Round Up® program. They distributed $76,600 to 72 organizations, including 19 area food shelves and nine area holiday gift giving programs.

Through the Operation Round Up® program, members of the Cooperative round up their monthly electric bills to the nearest dollar. The rounded-up funds (between 1¢ and 99¢) are placed in a trust fund that is administered by the Trust Board.

Since the program’s inception in 1993, Operation Round Up® and Stearns Electric members have awarded over $2.9 million to local non-profit organizations and community service programs. Any local non-profit organization or charitable cause can apply for funding. The next deadline is Friday, February 24.