Students learn about trees, careers through eco-friendly initiative

By Gabe Webb

Indianapolis, IN (August 6, 2010)- The headquarters of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful seems a bit incongruous with the content of its own name. Just a few blocks from I-65 in Fountain Square, its spinning wind spires, a source for some of the building’s energy needs, appear to harness the very exhaust from passing cars.

A closer look, however, reveals that the refurbished warehouse is an oasis of local foliage and simple, ecologically sound solutions to office waste — marrying office functionality and environmental savvy, with more than a dash of the cool quirk emerging in Fountain Square. Out front, an 8,000-gallon cylindrical tank collects rainwater to hydrate an adjacent patch of native plants, providing green space and keeping water out of the city’s sewers. The building’s white roof reflects sunlight, insulating the inside.

Even the parking lot is permeable, allowing water to drain through to the ground, and not into storm drains. Inside, carpet tiles assembled from textile mill scraps and recyclable aluminum office furniture mean less waste when it comes time for replacing them. Skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light. There’s even a small courtyard, perfect for an outdoor meeting.

But KIB isn’t just leading the charge to a greener city by setting and example with its own with office space. Instead of merely promoting green, eco-friendly practices in a metaphorical sense, they’re being quite literal: namely, by planting trees. The group has planted more than 18,700 trees since 2006, with the help of organizations and individuals who volunteer planting space and commit to taking care of the trees for two years. Early on, however, KIB realized that many of the spaces needing trees were owned by the city. Plantings in public spaces requires paid contractors to water trees and monitor health. Thus was born KIB’s Youth Tree Team, which wrapped up its annual summer-long program just last week.

KIB pays high school students on its Youth Tree Teams for watering trees, taking measurements and monitoring the health of plantings in city green spaces. “We said, ‘We have this need for tree maintenance — is there another need we can meet in the process of fulfilling our own?'” said Nate Faris, Youth Tree Team Director. “We realized that high schoolers need good summer jobs. So high schoolers get a good summer job, we get our trees cared for.”

The Youth Tree Team program began in 2006 with just a single crew. This summer, six crews of about eight students and a KIB staff leader operated around the city, through early August. The program is open to all high school students in the area, but the selection process is very competitive. In March, applicants faced a challenge course, testing on-the-job skills like moving mulch and carrying buckets of water. Those who were comfortable with manual labor and getting dirty then volunteered at a KIB planting, before a final interview. This year, there were only 15 available spots because of returning workers. Faris said about 100 students made it to the final interview. The lucky few selected earn more than just an hourly wage, however. The students learn to care for trees – planting, pruning, watering and mulching. But they also learn career and life skills beyond horticulture.

Each day started with calisthenics; if a team member arrived late, it meant the whole group started over. The regimen emphasized the importance of punctuality, personal responsibility and physical fitness. And KIB emphasizes student education beyond the Youth Tree Team. Teams worked in the field four days a week. The fifth day was set aside for an enrichment activity. Some were directly related to the environment, like rafting on the White River or an overnight trek into a forest. Others focused on professional development. “We try to connect them to green-collar professionals,” Faris explained. “We have them meet nurserymen who grow trees, landscape architects around the city. In the past they’ve met the city arborist or the city forester. So, they kind of get connected to jobs. If they want to continue in this industry, they have some ideas of where to go.”

“When we work with the youth, we want them to take away more than just a summer job,” said Bob Neary, leader of a Youth Tree Team. While a career is an important end goal, many high school students have reservations about an intermediate step: college. KIB has thought of this, too. The group took a college visit, and each student was able to seek advice about financial aid. “For a lot of them, I think it breaks down the intimidation that they have,” Faris said. “Some of them have never been to a college campus.”

While the members of the Youth Tree Teams can come from any school, KIB has made special efforts to reach out to students in Indianapolis Public Schools. “It’s a time when people discover a lot of their own interests or start digging deeper into whatever they want to do with their lives,” Faris said. He emphasized the importance of reaching out to young people. “It’s a good time to not only give these youth a good start just with a good job, but perhaps to foster their interest in the environment, to help them discover it.”

While the Youth Tree Teams have been monitoring KIB plantings since 2006, this year marks the inception of special crew. Two high school students, led by Neary and leader-in-training Newton Benegas, traveled the city on bicycles, cataloging the thousands of trees that KIB has planted. Each day the team began by making a printout from KIB databases that detailed past plantings – species, the number of trees planted and an approximate date. Then, using a GPS unit bracketed to the front of each bike, the team traveled to the site and noted the trees and their condition.

These data are used to help KIB determine what species thrive in the various conditions around the city, what neighborhoods are taking care of their trees and even what trees look the best. Knowing these variables enables KIB to effectively plant more trees and reach its goal: 100,000 new plantings by 2017, part of its NeighborWoods initiative, launched in 2007. The data have also been shared with Butler, IUPUI and IU. Potential research might include the relationship between newly planted trees and crime, rates of pediatric asthma and the overall temperature. The students on this particular tree team enjoyed its unique nature.

“I like the biking part, and I love being outside,” said Anye Carson. She found out about the Youth Tree Teams through a campaign in her school cafeteria. Ciera Carter said she also enjoys traveling by bike, visiting new sites every day. “And you get to interact with people more,” she added. Benegas noted the physical benefits of cycling. “And we’re in more populated areas,” he said. “We’re representing KIB.” The team pedaled 10 to 15 miles and visited up to 500 trees each day, depending on the proximity of the plantings. This rapid progress, however, meant that this team may make itself obsolete. But Neary would like to see it continue or expand in some form. “We never know what the future brings,” he said. “We’re really looking to get funding for this project.”

With or without the added technology, Faris has noticed the positive ways in which the Tree Teams represent KIB. “We go back and look at our past projects where Youth Tree Teams have been and the trees are thriving,” he said. “I think neighbors have been motivated to get out in the park more or take more interest in their own park because they see the youth caring for it.”

Related Resources:
NUVO- Students learn about trees, careers through eco-friendly initiative
Keep Indianapolis Beautiful
Keep Indianapolis Beautiful NeighborWoods Initiative