From Fence to Fire: Fueling Sustainability With Elpis Enterprises

By: Chad Hollinbeck

March 15, 2021

Category: People of the Parks

If you have ever had the opportunity to start a fire, warm up by a fire, or eat food cooked over a fire at the Baker Outdoor Learning Center, you are part of a unique journey.

The journey begins as a wooden fence somewhere in the Twin Cities area. As they weather and age, wooden fences are repaired or replaced, usually by a contractor. Too often the used material is tossed into a landfill. 

Elpis Enterprises – a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides job training and placement for homeless and precariously housed young people – changes this narrative to a more sustainable endeavor. 

Elpis works with a small handful of fence contractors to collect old cedar boards when a fence needs to be removed or replaced. Elpis staff and interns remove nails and rotted areas and repurpose the wood in their wood shop. 

The useable boards are cut and built into bird house and bird feeder kits, planter boxes, Adirondack chairs, bat houses and other wooden creations. Elpis sells these products, and their staff help lead online and in-person building workshops for the feeder and bird house kits.

Scrap wood that is too narrow, heavily knotted or does not fit a project template then becomes waste, right? Not quite. 

The journey continues and this scrap avoids the waste stream once again. Elpis staff donate the misfit cedar scraps to the Outdoor Learning Center. About 6-10 times a year, we collect this scrap wood and bring it back to be used as kindling for our programs and cabin visitors. 

A bagged feeder kit sits next to an assembled bird feeder in the Elpis Enterprises workshop.
Elpis Enterprises offers a variety of do-it-yourself feeder kits. Photo by Chad Hollinbeck. 

A Lasting Partnership

Unique partnerships like this one usually begin “some time ago.” The partnership between Elpis Enterprises and Three Rivers Park District began in the mid 1990s. Youth participants of then-named Youth Networks – affiliated with the Minneapolis Jaycees Charitable Foundation – spent time camping at Marshview Group Camp in Baker Park Reserve. As part of their experience, they built small bird feeders to be sold or given away at different festivals around the metro area. 

In 2002, the organization was renamed Elpis Enterprises (Elpis is Greek for hope) and was refreshed and re-organized with new goals. Paul Ramsour became the full-time executive director in 2014, and the partnership with Three Rivers continued as youth built bird boxes and wood duck houses to place in our parks. Many are still in use today.

Gaining Experience and Community Connections

At Elpis Enterprises, young people gain the skills, confidence and community relationships to overcome homelessness and become strong employees. Elpis has a complete wood-working shop and screen-printing business and recently added an embroidery workshop as well. 

Marcellius Watley, who has worked for Elpis for three years, shared some of what he learned in the 2.5 years he worked in the wood shop. “I’ve become much more aware of the safety aspects when around power tools. I won’t consider starting a power tool without eye and ear protection.” 

He has also found support from other staff members. When he started working at Elpis, Marcellius didn’t have a driver’s license. With the encouragement of Elpis staff, he earned his license and now delivers bird feeder kits, sweatshirt orders and other items as part of his work. He recently transitioned to a peer advocate role where he helps interns think through lifelong career decisions.

Marcellius Watley, a peer advocate at Elpis Enterprises, uses a table saw in the woodshop.
Marcellius works in the woodshop. Photo by Chad Hollinbeck.

Shadaria Brown has been working with Elpis for 10 years and currently supervises the woodshop as the woodworking coordinator. “What I love about my role is that I have a positive impact on my interns,” she said. “I get to help a young person develop skills they will use for the rest of their lives. I have learned problem-solving skills along with stress management. No matter where you are from or what you’re going through you can always achieve greatness, all you have to do is try.”

Starting Fires and Building Memories

At the Baker Outdoor Learning Center, we value community, fellowship, sticky fingers and marshmallow smiles. When you visit, you will often find people cooking, eating or singing around a campfire. 

Our partnership with Elpis Enterprises helps create these memories. Families, kids and other groups build birdhouses and feeders together as part of our programing. Other visitors use the scrap kindling to cook their meals, keep their cabins warm during the winter, and even to learn how to start a fire. These fires that came from fences create warm hearts and an atmosphere of belonging that our participants carry with them long after they leave.

A girl grins as she eats a s'more on a bench at the Baker Outdoor Learning Center.
Enjoying s'mores at the Baker Outdoor Learning Center.

Interested in supporting Elpis Enterprises and building a bird feeder kit? On Thursday, April 8, Baker Outdoor Learning Center will be hosting an online build-a-bird feeder program using Elpis-made feeder kits. Registration for April programs opens March 17. You can also visit Elpis Enterprises' website to learn more about the work they are doing and the products they offer. 

About the Author

Chad Hollinbeck wears ski goggles on top of his head and green winter coat at Hyland HIlls Ski Area.

Chad Hollinbeck is an Interpretive Naturalist at the Baker Outdoor Learning Center. He has a Bachelor of Science in Life Science Teaching with an Environmental Education minor from the University of Minnesota—Duluth. Chad also has a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from Mankato State University. He loves climbing rocks, ice and mountains and has traveled around the world to feed this hobby. Chad is a certified instructor in archery, firearm safety and mountain biking. When not at work, Chad loves to spend time with his wife and three children biking, camping, planting trees and coaching mountain biking.

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