Geoff Urban

In 1992, Chuck and Hope Lea were a married couple entering retirement, looking for a place where they could volunteer together.

Hope, an elementary school principal with Saint Paul Public Schools, suggested they volunteer at Belwin, which she knew from accompanying class trips to Belwin Outdoor Science. Chuck, an engineer with 3M, was less enthusiastic about working with young people but agreed to try it once.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Twenty-seven years later, the Leas have given more than 11,000 hours of their time to Belwin, monitoring bird activity, recording weather data, documenting wild flowers, and connecting kids with the natural world. 

The Leas volunteered at Belwin for nearly 30 years.

What brings the Leas back, year after year, however, is the bluebirds, chickadees and tree swallows. Each spring, Chuck and Hope set up 45 bluebird nesting boxes across 250 acres at Belwin.

Twice a week, until the birds fledge sometime in August, they visit each box and record the activity taking place within, including nests being built, eggs laid, birds hatched and fledged. 

Josh Leonard, education director for Belwin Outdoor Science (BOS), has worked with Chuck and Hope as volunteers with BOS and in a citizen scientist capacity.

Chuck Lea inspects a bluebird house with Josh Leonard’s son, in 2018.

“Thanks to Chuck and Hope, we continue to share the mystery of real, live bluebird, chickadee, and tree swallow nests,” says Leonard. “Children see nest building from the first strands of grass to the completed nests, the first egg laid, the first hatchlings, to fully fledged juvenile bluebirds. Students learn the impressive values of stewardship, citizen science and staying active into old age.”

In 2015, Chuck and Hope Lea received the Sustainable Saint Paul award from Mayor Chris Coleman (right).

Over the course of their time at Belwin, Leonard estimates that the Leas have witnessed the fledging of nearly 2,000 cavity nesting birds (900 bluebirds, 700 tree swallows, and 300 chickadees).

“Bluebirds are so beautiful to see,” says Hope. “They’re not destructive. They really like to take the bugs that we as humans don’t like.”

“For nearly three decades, children of Saint Paul Public Schools have been inspired to connect with nature, with each other, and with their elder generation by Chuck and Hope’s reliable dedication to the land, the birds and to outdoor education for urban kids,” says Leonard. “The world is better with Chuck and Hope. To say we are forever fortunate and thankful for Chuck and Hope is a profound understatement.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019-Winter 2020 issue of Belwin’s newsletter, “The Meadowlark.

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