A day with a crew

A county employee tags along with a Sentencing to Service crew

A county employee tags along with a Sentencing to Service crew

Most people think Sentencing-to-Service crews just pick up trash and mow lawns. After spending a day tagging along with a crew, I can attest this is not the case.

I thought, a day taking pictures and interviewing a crew leader should be a mini vacation.

I received instructions via email to report for duty at 7 a.m.; no shorts, no sandals, and bring a lunch.

Vacation cancelled!

Fluffing woodchips

I was assigned to shadow Chris Rice, a crew leader of almost a decade. He explained we would spend the day working on three projects:

  • Fluffing woodchips at a playground
  • Weed whipping fence lines along a trail
  • Helping take down the Wayzata rummage sale

It seemed pretty reasonable. I had been weed whipping since I was 10 years old (great parenting, Dad) and my family has held several rummage sales over the years. I only had one question: what the heck is fluffing wood chips?

Apparently, over time, kids compress the soft woodchips at public playgrounds, making them almost as hard as concrete. Not ideal for a public park.

Making a difference

Chris loaded-up the equipment and we headed out to pick up our crew at the Brookdale Service Center.

When the clock hit 8 a.m., we found out that we would have three crew members: a middle-aged man, a man in his late twenties and a woman in her early twenties. Everyone piled into the van and we were off to the Three Rivers Park District to get started.

To be honest, I thought crew leaders supervised their by crews providing guidance, without doing much manual labor. But as we exited the van and started walking to the playground, Chris grabbed five pitch forks.

I did some quick math in my head. Yep, this was not going to be an “observe and report” day for me. I would be fluffing woodchips.

After what seemed like several hours I looked down at my watch. Five minutes. How could it only be five minutes? I was already bordering on exhaustion.

We all diligently worked for about a half an hour when we were treated to an impromptu ecology lesson after uncovering two turtle nests. No worries; Chis had seen this before. He collected the eggs and delivered them to the Three Rivers Park District environmental office.

We finished fluffing woodchips and headed to our next project.

On the way, I was brainstorming an excuse to return to my air conditioned office when a crew member exclaimed, “I’m glad we made the playground safer for those kids.”

Chris later mentioned that crew members often take this kind of pride in their work. “I’ve had parents bring their kids back to a playground we worked on earlier in the day and explain to them why it was important they helped make the playground safer,” said Chris. “It has brought parents to tears when their kids tell them they are proud of them.”

Less strenuous, but just as important

Weed whipping was a lot less strenuous than woodchip fluffing, but it was more than a walk in the park. Removing weeds along trails makes them safer and more esthetically appealing for the hundreds of people who traverse them each day. But parks are big. When you weed whip your yard, there is a finite amount of work involved. When your project is park fence lines, it seems to go on forever.

Still, there was something about the work that resonated with me – I felt like I was coming into my own during weed whipping.

After more than an hour of work, Chris got a call from Caleb Tungseth, another crew leader, who needed backup at the Wayzata rummage sale.

As we arrived at the sale, I realized this was not your average neighborhood operation. It was enormous. It was our job to take down large tents – constructed of heavy-duty metal polls that were cumbersome to maneuver – and dispose of unbought items.

By 3:30 p.m., I was on the verge of collapse and grateful when Chris told us it was quitting time.

We dropped our crew off back in Brookdale around 4 p.m. and headed to the office.

At this point, I considered asking if I could take a short 19-hour nap before heading home, but I wanted to ask Chris a few more questions. Most importantly, I wanted to know why he kept coming back day after day.

“I love this job, I love the clients, I love my fellow crew leaders and I love the value we are providing to the county,” he said. “You can exact lasting change as an STS crew leader. What more could I ask for?”

Learn more at

www.hennepin.us/sts