Landscaper grows passion

Mike Baronner of Hollidaysburg gardens at Penn State Altoona, where he is the groundskeeper. He also has a landscaping business on the side.

By Russ O’Reilly

Penn State Altoona head grounds­keeper Mike Baronner spends his vacations in Central American countries where he applies his skills to improve the opportunities of children.

Baronner, 56, of Hollidaysburg, has worked at Penn State Altoona for 24 1/2 years. Baronner has a business, Moun­tain Laurel Landscaping, on the side.

Michael Long, director of facilities and operations at Penn State Altoona, said Baronner is a hard worker.

Baronner is a leader and hard worker whether he’s on campus or in another country, he said.

“Just look around campus at our flowers. He has a big hand in that, plus he goes to Nicaragua, which is a good thing as well. We support him in that.”

During this year’s spring break, he traveled to Nicaragua. It was the 10th year he traveled with Penn State Altoona students on spring break to Central America.

The main goal of the organization he works through — Outreach360 — he said, is to make it easier for children to learn English so their career opportunities later in life are greater.

“The people we help get better at English every year,” Baronner said. “Some students have been in the program for five years. And as a group, Outreach360 is highly respected by all parents and they want their children to have a good education. They just don’t have money for it. The schools we build are free for students.”

Baronner leads agricultural, construction, tree planting and irrigation projects.

His next project is to help build a permanent school on an acre and a half of ground purchased by Outreach360 in Nicaragua. The school will serve 200 students; a big difference from the typical school that serves about 40 students.

“You see the world through a different set of eyes than when you are caught up in your own world in the U.S.,” he said. “You see how little they have but how happy they are. They have a lot less but seem to be happier. It centers you and makes you a lot more appreciative of how good we have it in this country.”

Baronner is joined on his trips to Central America each year by a group of about 15 students from Penn State Altoona, and Victoria Hesser, an employee of the campus’ learning resource center. She arranges the trip logistics. Baronner, she said, is the “ag and construction piece.”

“Mike is the hardest-working and most even-tempered man I have ever known. I couldn’t have been paired up with a better co-leader than Mike. He is the inspirational leader, while I am the logistical coordinator whose job is to get the students to Nicaragua and the same students back to Penn State Altoona, all the better from their experience abroad,” Hesser said.

Hesser said Baronner has a positive impact, not only on the Nicaraguan people who look forward to the Penn State Altoona team coming, but also on the students he leads.

“He’s a positive influence on them. Some students haven’t even picked up a tool or seen a shovel,” Hesser laughed.

Students who travel with Baronner and Hesser can be shy or hold preconceived notions about the people they go to serve. But students learn from Baronner’s example.

“He is a dynamic guy,” Hesser said. “He has no preconceived notions of anyone. He’s willing to have a conversation and talk.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946 7435.