A Minneapolis park in the heart of the North Side will be a bustling hub of sports, games and volunteer projects this summer — a place for kids to play safely after a difficult year of violence and COVID-19 disruptions.

A new coalition of nonprofits and organizations called Seeds to Harvest this month is boosting the number of free sports and activities at North Commons Park, launching its Summer Games program where kids can try out new activities from handball to mountain biking and chess.

Three children have been shot this summer in crossfire on the North Side, two of them fatally, and a 12-year-old drowned at the North Commons pool in June.

"It's a tragedy that must not happen again. We're coming together because we know we must do better," said Brett Buckner, a longtime North Sider and co-chairman of Seeds to Harvest. "We're seeing where the gaps are and where the opportunities [are] to really bring community together."

The volunteer-led coalition is teaming up with more than 50 groups, including the YMCA and the Loppet Foundation. Buckner is trying to raise $250,000 for more activities, equipment and meals for participants in the July and August games. In exchange, kids volunteer for projects, such as trash cleanups.

"Seeds to Harvest to me is an example of the community coming together to provide solutions that they want to see," said Tom Evers, executive director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. "That's the power in this ... it's a really creative response."

The Summer Games are funded by donations, including $7,000 from the Minneapolis Parks Foundation and $10,000 from U.S. Bank.

Boosting activities

In May 2020, after COVID-19 had shuttered many programs and forced schools into distance learning, Buckner helped organize a week of activities for kids and have them give back by doing such activities as planting trees and picking up trash. But a week after it ended, George Floyd's murder sparked weeks of unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"Now all of a sudden, it was like, 'We can't stop after this,' " Buckner said. "It's just been a labor of love."

Seeds to Harvest partnered with other groups to distribute food and hold weekly volunteer projects. Kids shoveled out fire hydrants around North Commons in the winter and cleared stormwater drains of debris this spring.

On Aug. 8, Seeds to Harvest will try to break four Guinness World Records for most bases run in baseball, most penalty kicks in soccer, the biggest game of catch and the most jumping high-fives — another effort to rally the community, Buckner said.

Other grass-roots, volunteer-led efforts to help families in need have sprung up, similarly motivated by the pandemic, economic fallout and civil unrest.

From July 10 to Aug. 14, a new futsal league playing a fast-paced version of soccer will draw 120 youngsters to North Commons. The league was started this year by Twin Cities Sol Futsal Academy and the Karen Football Association to bridge gaps among youth of different backgrounds. The common pay-for-play model prices many kids out of organized sports, so for many young people this will be their first experience in a league. They will get their own jersey and a meal, and also will volunteer for an hour.

The groups couldn't pull off the planning without help from Seeds to Harvest, said Kyle Johnson, executive director of the Karen Football Association in the east metro. "It's been incredible to see the community organizations come together," he said.

Young people will be able to try mountain biking and orienteering this month at Theodore Wirth Regional Park, thanks to the Loppet Foundation, which offers similar activities through schools or fee-based programs. Joining with Seeds to Harvest allows Loppet to broaden its reach, said executive director Claire Wilson.

"It's always important we're working together to reach as many youth as possible," she said.

Feeling 'left aside'

While some nonprofits partnering with Seeds to Harvest already were working with North Side kids, Buckner said, the coalition offers organizations new ways to collaborate.

"It was always done in silos," he said. "This is the first time in quite some time that these agencies are actually working collaboratively for one purpose: to reverse the trajectory of what's been going on."

COVID-19 closures hit the North Side as it did other communities, but inequities had existed long before, said Buckner, 49, who graduated from North High School and lives five blocks from North Commons. He leads a public policy nonprofit called OneMN and ran for the Minneapolis City Council in 2013.

Citing impressive sports facilities in such cities as Hopkins and Woodbury, Buckner said "those things can happen in north Minneapolis. We're thinking big about how we change the narrative in north Minneapolis and how people perceive north Minneapolis."

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board adopted a long-term plan in 2019 to revitalize North Commons and replace an aging recreation center with an $11 million facility. The project received $5 million in state bonding money last year.

"Until that building is built, we are going to keep going. We have to," Buckner said. "We have too many of our kids who are feeling like they're being left aside and they don't have the [same] opportunities as everybody else."

To sign up a child, volunteer or donate, go to seedstoharvestmn.org.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141