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Draper Journal

Extra Mile winners aid refugees and save the city’s wetlands

Mar 07, 2023 04:12PM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

Don Ward poses with members of the Draper City Council after receiving the 2022 Extra Mile Award for his work on behalf of refugees. Some members of the council and city staff are Ward’s former students from his years teaching at Alta High School. (Courtesy Draper City)

Extra Mile Day is observed annually to recognize difference-makers in communities across the nation. “This program resonated because it gives the city the chance to recognize those residents that are going above and beyond,” said Chief of Staff Kellie Challburg.

Draper recognized two 2022 winners: Don Ward and The Wetland Rangers led by Melissa Inouye.

Ward taught history for 35 years at Alta and Jordan high schools. Within months of his retirement in 2007, he was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His family was told he would likely die Christmas Day. But, after almost five months in the hospital, Ward’s health began to improve. He got a call from Granite Peak Junior High in South Salt Lake, a school with a large refugee population, asking him to substitute for several weeks. That was followed by an eight-month stint substituting at the same school for a history teacher who had passed away. It was an eye-opening experience for Ward compared to his years at Jordan and Alta. “I had one class with 24 students that spoke 19 different languages, none of which was English,” he said. Ward taught at Granite Peak Junior High for five years. 

“I was looking for a way to show appreciation for blessings (not dying) and I felt like working with refugees was an answer to my wishes. Most people don’t realize there are 60,000 to 70,000 individual refugees from different countries living in Utah,” he said.

His first year at Granite Peak, he organized a Sub for Santa for 24 students with help from an LDS young women’s group and some friends. In the 14 years since, he’s done it every year with help from former students, friends and community members. “To tell you how much that has grown, this Christmas we did 1,814 families,” Ward said. 

The number of refugees he has helped is staggering and the effort runs year-round. “There are certain things we do all 12 months of the year,” he said, including collecting “consumables” such as paper towels, white rice, vegetable oil, laundry detergent, diapers and other everyday items. In January, blankets and coats are collected and distributed. For Easter, 500-600 baskets are given to children. That’s followed by the collection of $20 gift cards in the spring for graduating seniors. Box fans are passed out in the summer (Ward estimates they’ve given out 7,500) “because a lot of them can’t afford electricity/air conditioning and their apartments get so hot they’re difficult to live in.” Next comes a massive gathering of school supplies (last year close to 25,000 items were collected). For Halloween, thousands of costumes for children are collected, and the effort culminates at Christmas when the work is the most intensive. 

A young man from Nepal once asked Ward for a bike, explaining that he lived in West Valley and rode TRAX to his hotel laundry job, but when he finished his shift at 2 a.m., TRAX was no longer running. Five days a week for one year, he walked 47 blocks home in the wee hours of the morning. Ward fulfilled his request for a bike, the first of some 2,400 bikes he estimates his group has gifted refugees. Ward’s friend, Marty Bodell, collects and fixes bikes for the donations. “He’s amazing,” Ward said.

Ward told several stories of strife and survival that he’s heard from refugees through the years. Once, he asked the whereabouts of the father of a young Sudanese man. The young man explained that, while living in Sudan, his family had run out of food, so his father and four friends decided to walk their families’ camels to market to sell for money for food. The four were robbed and killed on their way home, and three of those fatherless families now reside in Utah. “I can tell you these heart-wrenching stories by the hundreds,” Ward said. 

Recently, Ward established the 501(c)(3) WARD Foundation. He was hesitant to set up a nonprofit for fear bureaucracy would slow the aid for refugees, and he didn’t want to spend money on attorney fees. But he recognized that he won’t live forever and establishing a foundation would ensure his efforts continue in perpetuity. Attorney Mary Squire of Draper offered to do the legal work for free and Austin McKeehan of Alpine volunteered his nonprofit expertise. “They have been wonderful,” he said. 

There are many opportunities to help. You can find the WARD Foundation on Facebook and their Venmo is @WARDFoundation. “We need volunteers to deliver donated goods, and there’s no cost other than the cost of gas. We also need volunteers to check on families. We just started a sign-up page,” Ward said.

Melissa Inouye and her family live near Mehraban Wetlands Park. A couple years ago, because of drought conditions, the pond had an algal bloom problem. “It turned bright yellow. The algae was so thick it looked like an oily yellow paint was oozing through the pond. For those of us who live next to the pond, it was shocking and horrible,” she said. Inouye described the wetlands park as “a kid paradise…a place of freedom they can wander with their fishing poles and play.” 

Inouye reached out to the city on behalf of the kids to see what could be done to solve the problem. “That was the genesis of the group (the Wetland Rangers),” she said. Rick Anton with Draper City set the kids up with tools to take out phragmites, trap the trunks of and clip suckers from Russian olive trees, and to pick up trash including fishing lines left behind. Inouye, who works as a historian, had the idea to make it educational by bringing in scientists to talk to and work with the youth. “These kids are interested in nature, so this is a way to connect them with actual scientists.” 

In addition to hours spent fighting algae and invasive species that would otherwise kill the fish in the pond and threaten the native plants, the Wetland Rangers went on a field trip to the Springville hatchery to learn where the fish come from that stock their pond. And a scientist helped them test to discover that fish within the pond are reproducing, a positive sign for their efforts. Recently, they worked with Utah State University on research on invasive and native species in Utah lakes.

Inouye’s 10-year-old son, Han McMullin, is one of the Wetland Rangers. He spoke to the city council about the threats to the pond and efforts to save the fish, the birds and native plants.

Inouye complimented the city and state’s efforts stocking fish and trying to keep the pond healthy. “We shouldn’t take it for granted, there’s a lot of work that goes on to maintain the life of the pond. If the rangers and the city aren’t investing time in it, it’s in danger. The beauty of the wetlands is fragile and threatened, especially in these drought conditions,” she said.

Inouye has a cancer fight in common with fellow Extra Mile winner Ward. That inspires her efforts with the youth to keep Mehraban Wetlands Park healthy. “I’m a cancer patient and cancer is like an invasive species, it grows and takes over until it kills you. When I remove phragmites, it feels like I’m striking a blow against invasive species like cancer,” she said. “It’s deeply satisfying.” 

The group can be contacted via Facebook at and local youth are invited to join in their efforts. “We hope more people will join us in our local work because the city can only do so much. Phragmites are hard to clear out unless you have a lot of manual labor,” Inouye said.

The Extra Mile Foundation’s website says, “Our work is inspired by the belief that going the extra mile opens doors to new possibilities. Going the extra mile improves the results we find in life, both professionally and personally…it allows us to make a difference in our community and in our world.” Ward and the Wetland Rangers are doing just that.