WTI – aka “The Tree People” – in action!
My name is Derek Lirange and I work for the Worcester Tree Initiative (WTI). People often affectionately refer to us as ‘the tree people’. WTI has been working to help Worcester recover from the Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation discovered in 2009. Over the course of the past five years we have worked together with the City of Worcester and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to replant 30,000 trees. We have worked alongside numerous community partners to achieve this goal and in October 2014 the goal was met by planting the 30,000th tree at Burncoat High School, in one of the most greatly affected neighborhoods in Worcester.
Besides the mission to replant 30,000 trees, Worcester Tree Initiative has also been committed to educating people about the importance of trees to their community. Many people never realized the importance of trees in their neighborhood until the trees were removed. Worcester Tree Initiative organizes public training events, goes to schools to teach students, and shares the many benefits of trees with the community. Looking ahead we will continue with this mission and we hope that Worcester will become a city full of ‘tree people’!
With this goal in mind we are particularly excited about working on the CSX Youth Tree Stewards Grant, which we received from the Alliance for Community Trees. This grant has given us the opportunity to partner with the Boys and Girls Club of Worcester to teach youth from the inner city about the importance of trees and how to care for them. We will have seven sessions with the youth in the program, and each session will focus on a particular theme, stewardship, leadership, or advocacy. By working with the same kids over the course of seven weeks we will have the special opportunity of forming relationships and watching them learn. Our hope is that at the end of this program these youth will know more about what ‘tree people’ do and why it is important, and hopefully be inspired to do that work too.
Before we get there though we have a few obstacles to overcome. The Athletic Director at the Boys and Girls Club, Ruben Rosado, told us that most of the kids he spends his time with have never cared for a plant but they do spend a lot of time playing video games or watching TV. He tends to houseplants and has planted gardens around his home. He has found an enormous sense of satisfaction from watching his plants flourish and eating the fruits of his labor. He strongly supports the Youth Tree Stewards program because sees it as a chance for kids to “get away from technology and into nature.”
That is a chance that some inner city youth do not often get. We played a little game together during our first class and I found that many of our kids had never planted a tree, climbed a tree, or hiked through the woods. I know that coming from a suburb I had different opportunities than these youth do, but I cannot help but feel they are missing out. I would not be a tree person today if it were not for my regular walks in the woods.
In lieu of a field trip in 30-degree weather we had to find a way to show these kids how amazing trees are. So we told them about some of the most incredible trees in the world. Students found it incredible that the widest tree in the world, at more than 46 feet in diameter, is nearly as wide as a basketball court. They used a measuring tape to see just how big the tallest tree in the world is. For your information it is nearly twice as tall as the Boys and Girls Club building is long, it is 387 feet tall! And they could hardly believe that the oldest tree in the world, a nearly 5,000-year-old tree, is older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. By the end of class each student’s jaw had dropped at least once, it was a good way to kick the program off.
This was just the appetizer though; as the weather gets nicer we will start spending more of our time outside and connecting students to nature. This connection is a critical piece of getting people to see the value of nature. As I said before, many people do not realize the importance of a city’s urban forest. Trees and parks are usually thought of as amenities, not necessities; they are not seen as part of the infrastructure. But trees are not just for decoration and they do more than give us oxygen. Trees promote greater health, save people money, produce food, and green spaces within the city protect the natural world outside of the city.
For example, a large tree that casts shade on a house will cool the house down and reduce the need for air conditioning. This reduces energy costs and also avoids energy use, which results in fewer emissions. That same tree will intercept rainwater on its way to the sewer, slowing the water on its way to rivers and streams. This helps to stabilize these water bodies and keeps them clean for aquatic life and for people who want to swim, boat, or fish. Trees clean the air, which in cities can be very dirty and lead to poor respiratory health. And of course, some trees produce fruit, which you might have as a healthy snack or harvest for sale. Worcester Tree Initiative has planted numerous urban orchards and fruiting groves for private and public use.
There is also a lot of research connecting trees to health in ways that you would never have expected, like reduced crime rates, higher test grades, and healthier birth weights. The most famous study came out nearly 30 years ago showing that hospital patients with a view of green spaces outside their window recovered faster and took fewer medications than patients whose rooms looked out onto the wall of another building. There is clearly more to trees than meets the eye! Cities need people who understand these benefits to be advocates for the urban forest.
In the Youth Tree Stewards Program we will talk about all of this and we will also give students the skills to be stewards of the environment. In our time together students will learn the basics of tree identification, pruning, and how to plant and care for trees. Together we will plant 5 trees at the Worcester Boys and Girls Club and we will do maintenance on the trees in their parking lot.
The Youth Tree Stewards program will also give students the opportunity to meet professional ‘tree people’. Many people never realize that there is a whole world of opportunities to explore by working with the natural world.
We are very excited to welcome professional arborist Melissa Levangie as a guest speaker to talk about arboriculture. She will be showing students her climbing gear and demonstrating climbing techniques. She teaches with a lot of enthusiasm and whenever she presents people of every age leave excited and talking about what she just taught them. This presentation will be a chance to show young people a set of skills that is totally new to them.
We hope that by showing the Youth Tree Stewards what an arborist does and connecting them to plants and nature they will realize that there are a lot of opportunities for them to work and play outside. They could be good stewards of the environment as landscapers or arborists and they could be leaders working in a national park or right in the urban forest. There are all sorts of tree people in the world and we want to ensure that urban youth know that they can be tree people too.
This exciting program has just begun and it has already been a lot of fun. The students are engaged, asking questions, and taking part in activities. We will finish up our classroom time in the beginning of May but for the kids in the Youth Tree Stewards program, that may just be the beginning of a very green future.