Washington, DC (April 24, 2008)- In the May issue of P&R, we featured a Q+A with Alice Ewen Walker (“Seeing the City for the Trees,” page 67), executive director of the Alliance for Community Trees, a volunteer-driven nonprofit that has planted 7.8 million trees in cities and towns across the country. More than simply planting trees, for ACT it’s about growing stronger communities through citizen involvement and the promotion of healthier urban ecosystems.
In the follow-up below, Monique Torbert, a youth volunteer and leader from Detroit, talks about how a greening experience with ACT radically changed her life- and her perception of the power of green:
Before I was exposed to the wonderful world of trees, I was in a depressing stage in my life. I felt like there was no hope for me to do good or move forward. I didn’t have enough support from the people around me when I needed them most, and I just began to feel so angry inside.
I was at a loss; I didn’t know what I wanted or where I was going. My grades were failing and I became very violent. Really, I felt alone. Growing up close to the North End in the treeless 12th Street neighborhood, I didn’t know that urban forestry would play such a turnaround role in my life.
During the summer of 2002, I was just looking for a way to make some extra money. There weren’t many jobs available to high-school-aged kids. So when I found out that the Greening of Detroit’s Green Corps was hiring, availability was the initial attraction.
Trees weren’t central to how I grew up. And actually, I wasn’t sure if outdoor activities were really my thing. I remember enjoying the TreeKeepers Kids program in elementary school, which was my first exposure to trees. But my family thought the outdoors aspect of the Green Corps would be a positive activity in my community.
“Trees brought us together, like a shared experience.”
Long story short, I applied and secured an interview, but was not selected. Although I applied with a “nothing to lose” mindset, the rejection was pretty upsetting. Afterwards, the Greening wrote me a personal note encouraging me to try out again, in 2003. Their support helped me to realize that I hadn’t gotten the job the first time because I kept to myself too much, and didn’t show that I could be a team player. I tried again the next year and have been with the Greening almost five years.
The work we did always started with trees, but it was more than that. It was about people. We were meeting people and talking with them about their experiences, who they were, and what they wanted, and you always found that you had things in common. Trees brought us together, like a shared experience.
It’s funny, too, because now I read studies about how kids in treeless neighborhoods play outdoors less and are more prone to approach life the way I did, and I can see the evidence in my own life. The other thing about Green Corps was that you had to depend on other staff and peers and find a new comfort level. I could have gotten work experience anywhere, but what we were doing mattered to the community and to everyone I worked with, and that was unique.
Before working with trees, I couldn’t have said what had to change because I didn’t know what I wanted. After two years with the Greening, I knew what I wanted and applied to be a team leader to further develop my skills. Being a leader among peers was challenging, but for the first time I felt confident that I could be a leader.
In 2006, I applied to be an AmeriCorps Vista, which continues until August 2008. After that, I hope to continue working with trees.
Through the AmeriCorps program, I’ve earned over $9,000 in education awards for school, which is a tremendous help to me. I’m at Wayne County Community College working on an associate degree, and will transfer to Wayne State University to get my bachelor’s in social work. Next, I plan to transfer to Michigan State to work on a Master’s. If everything goes to plan, I’ll be finished by 2013.
The changes in me came out of nowhere. Suddenly I was a self-starter, a leader, more confident, not getting into trouble anymore, and starting a college degree. I never thought I’d be where I am today and making positive changes in the community.
I hope I encourage inner-city youth like me that no matter how hard life gets, you have to keep taking chances because you never know which opportunity will come. I don’t want to imagine where I’d be if I didn’t work for the Greening of Detroit. I’m truly honored to be a part of an incredible organization and hope to stay.
Working with trees gave me direction and peace when I needed it most.
For more information about organizations like the Greening of Detroit, contact the Alliance for Community Trees, a national federation of 150 community groups dedicated to tree planting, care, and community education. ACT member organizations lead youth development programs in neighborhoods in Detroit, New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and other cities. Together, ACT affiliates have planted 7.8 million trees in cities with help from 450,000 volunteers. Visit www.actrees.org to learn more.
Seeing the City for the Trees
Growing Through Green
National Recreation and Parks Association