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South Washington County communities celebrate Night to Unite

Cottage Grove police reserve officers Jason Harder, left, and Steve Hotaling interact with kids Tuesday at a Night to Unite party in the Mississippi Dues neighborhood. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)1 / 15
Several members of the Cottage Grove police department toured a handful of Night to Unite parties across Cottage Grove Tuesday, supporting neighborhood missions to foster a crime-free community. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)2 / 15
Cottage Grove police reserve officer Jason Harder hands out balloons and small prizes Tuesday to kids at a Night to Unite party in Cottage Grove. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)3 / 15
Cottage Grove resident Heather Carey prepares some food Tuesday at her neighborhood Night to Unite party in the Mississippi Dunes development. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)4 / 15
Drew Lodermeier, 5, insisted on a heart and peace sign from experienced face painter Cindy Trusty during a Night to Unite celebration in Peter Thompson Park in Cottage Grove. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)5 / 15
Four-year-old Emily Senart captures a photo of police K-9, Blitz, and officer Mike Vandervort during their visit to a Night to Unite Party in Cottage Grove Tuesday. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)6 / 15
Four-year-old Emily Senart, of Cottage Grove, watches police K-9 Blitz as his handler, officer Mike Vandervort, talks about the specialized police unit at her family’s Night to Unite party Tuesday. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)7 / 15
Emily Senart, 4, laughs as Cottage Grove police K-9, Blitz, sticks his tongue out at her Tuesday at a Night to Unite party in Cottage Grove. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)8 / 15
Swinging away the evening, 1-year-old Sienna Marlatt attends the Night to Unite celebration at Peter Thompson Park Tuesday with her mom, Amber. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)9 / 15
Luke Landgraf, a St. Paul Park police reserves officer, explains the controls of a patrol car to Michael Lewandowski, 4, during National Night Out at Heritage Park. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)10 / 15
An all-female fire brigade assembled for duty during National Night Out at Heritage Park in St. Paul Park. They include (from left): Emily Orth, 8; Hailey Wilkoske, 8; Mary Johnson, 10; Lily Kell, 8; and Grace Conaway, 8. The annual crime-prevention party was hosted by local police, fire and public works departments on Aug. 12. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)11 / 15
Alec Neu, 3, gets a closer look at a State Patrol helicopter during National Night Out in Heritage Park. Alec came with parents Hayley and Tim of St. Paul Park. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)12 / 15
Judy Anderson of St. Paul Park peruses public safety pamphlets at the Aug 12. National Night out at Heritage Park in St. Paul Park. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)13 / 15
Spectators at National Night Out watch a State Patrol helicopter take off at Heritage Park in St. Paul Park. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler) 14 / 15
Lilly Monahan, 2, gets acquainted with a horse from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office mounted patrol during National Night Out at Heritage Park. Lilly is the granddaughter of St. Paul Park Police Chief Mike Monahan. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler) 15 / 15

South Washington County residents opened their homes — and front lawns — to their neighbors last week to celebrate the Night to Unite and National Night Out gatherings.

The annual event, marked by blue balloons, grilled food and outdoor activities for families, is a way for residents to get to know their neighbors and work toward crime-free neighborhoods.

Dozens of parties took place across Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Newport and Grey Cloud Island, with many receiving visits from local law enforcement and elected officials.

The Cottage Grove K-9 unit, led by officer Mike Vandervort, was a hit with both adults and children. He educated party-goers about the 8-year-old German Shepherd named Blitz.

Four-year-old Emily Senart, of Cottage Grove, gathered at a party with her family on 79th Street, where Blitz made a visit.

“What does he eat?” she asked officer Vandervort. “Does he like to play? Does he sleep in your house?”

She and friends Elyse Stanfield and Audrey Ecker, both 11, were excited to have the police dog in attendance and to spend time petting Blitz.

In the Pine Glen Park neighborhood, residents gathered at Gayle Brunkow’s home along 98th Street. Brunkow is the captain of the neighborhood crime watch and said with the turnover in the neighborhood, Night to Unite is a good chance to meet the new residents.

“We’re an older community over here,” she said. “And we have a lot of people that go south for the winter. So these parties help us all get to know each other, know which cars are familiar and which are not, and who to call when something happens.”

Former crime watch captains Bob and Mary Kempton said Brunkow is a great neighbor and “really watches out for us.”  

Across the city in Peter Thompson Park, neighbor kids jumped in bounce houses, ate grilled hot dogs, played on the equipment and soaked up the warm weather. Organizer Kim Bihm said she has lived in the neighborhood for three years and every year attends the Night to Unite celebration.

“It’s a great opportunity to get out and spend time with your neighbors, get to know one another,” she said. “We’re stuck in the house all winter so it’s nice to get everyone out.”

With roughly 180 homes in the development, she said the event allows neighbors to get acquainted with familiar faces.

“We look out for each other here,” Bihm said. “If we see someone’s garage door open, we’ll let them know. And if someone goes out of town, we make sure their home has a light on or looks lived in. And Night to Unite helps us all stay connected.”

With more than 200 people in attendance, the Highland Hills Homeowner Association paid for the party, Bihm said.

Across the highway in St. Paul Park, more than 900 residents gathered at Heritage Park to celebrate Night to Unite. Police Chief Mike Monahan said volunteers went through roughly 500 hot dogs in about 30 minutes, a figure he said was typical.

The event had visits from local law enforcement and the Minnesota State Patrol helicopter. St. Paul Park resident Chase Callah brought his son, Tyler, 3, to watch the helicopter lift off.

"We live right over there," he said. "It's great for the community to get to know each other."

Hayley and Tim Neu, of St. Paul Park, brought their 3-year-old son, Alec, who seemed fascinated by the state police helicopter that sat on the lawn. Asked what his favorite part was, Alec said: "Propeller."

Several Newport residents also participated in Night to Unite by hosting parties at their homes.