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Night Out: Communities gather for annual summer event

Two-year-old Eva Hanzlik is fitted with a balloon wrist corsage by Kelli Mankowski Tuesday evening during Night to Unite at Oscar Kristofferson Park in Baxter. Balloon artist Mankowski was one of several attractions at the park and throughout the Brainerd and Baxter area. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

BAXTER - On a warm, sunlit summer night residents gathered in city parks and neighborhoods for a national event devoted to making safer communities.

At Oscar Kristofferson Park in Baxter an estimated 400 adults and children took part in events. Children clutched balloon animals. Faces were painted. Hundreds of free root beer floats were consumed. This year, even the weather cooperated for Baxter's Night to Unite.

Justin and Jennifer Kangas, recent transplants from Appleton, Wis., attended Night to Unite for the first time. Their children Ellisyn, 2, and Brennan, 10 months, were taking part in Home Depot's free kid's building workshop and waiting to see Baxter's K-9 Gator in a demonstration.

Jennifer Kangas said she thought it was important for the children to meet the police officers so they wouldn't be scared. She wanted her young daughter to know what a police officer looked like if she ever needed help or got lost.

"Our neighborhood has the small town feel," Justin Kangas said of Baxter. "People wave."

Jennifer Kangas said the organized Baxter gathering, with multiple things to do and see, was small enough to offer a real chance to meet people and interact with police officers.

The annual event was so important to the Baxter City Council, the regular meeting night was moved from Tuesday to Wednesday so council members and city staff members could attend Night to Unite.

"It's a great time for neighbors to get together," said Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson. "In some cases they know each other just by waving as they pass."

Olson said it also gives people a chance to get to know the names and faces of the city's police officers and realize what services are available.

"The other thing I find so phenomenal is the willingness of the business community to be part of this," Olson said. "It's a caring, giving community - not just Baxter - but the community in general. ... It really is a night to unite."

A large crowd gathered to see Baxter Officer Matt Maier and K-9 Gator demonstrate their skills. One boy said, "I've never seen a cop dog before."

Another popular attraction came with the Baxter Lions' free root beer floats.

Grace Eberhardt and Karen Schloemer were on hand supporting the Lions. They've attended a number of Night to Unite events.

"It builds community," Eberhardt said. "You see a lot of old friends and new friends."

Schloemer said they've made new friends at the event. A Southdale resident of Baxter, Schloemer said times have changed in how neighbors know each other.

"Thirty years ago you knew everybody that was there," Schloemer said of the neighborhood. Older residents still have that connection but it's not as easy to get to know new ones. Night to Unite offers a way to build those connections.

Baxter Police Officer Kathy Ailts, who helped coordinate the event, said putting it together was a team effort. This year Baxter added music for the first time.

"It's wonderful," Ailts said. "It's a good turnout. Everyone is having a good time."

And she noted a lot of children were coming up to talk to police officers.

Baxter's community gathering was in unison with National Night Out events hosted across the lakes area, the state and nation. Hundreds gathered in Gregory Park in north Brainerd with the Brainerd Northside Neighborhood Association. There were National Night Out events in Northtown, downtown Brainerd, Marsh Run Townhomes, at the northeast Brainerd fire hall with the Northeast Brainerd Residents Association and at Jaycees Park with the Southeast Brainerd Residents Association.

Bringing people together for National Night Out began 31 years ago. The nonprofit National Association of Town Watch, which coordinates National Night Out, noted a connected neighborhood is a safer one.

The event began as a crime prevention effort to strengthen connections between police and community residents.

When it began, the organization reported 2.5 million Americans took part in 400 communities in 23 states. It grew to include 37.8 million in 16,124 communities in all 50 states, military bases across the globe, U.S. territories and Canadian cities.

"While the one night is certainly not an answer to crime, drugs and violence, National Night Out represents the kind of spirit, energy and determination to help make neighborhoods a safer place year round," stated Matt Peskin, National Association of Town Watch executive director, who introduced National Night Out in 1984. "The night celebrates safety and crime prevention successes and works to expand and strengthen programs for the next 364 days."

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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