A majestic, 120-year-old willow tree is a powerful presence as student volunteers work in the already-hot morning sun. They work quickly to fill large watering cans with water to help 39 young trees become established. The students from West Humber Collegiate and Park People’s summer student, Mariam Farah are at 121 Kendleton, a Toronto Community Housing property in Toronto. The willow stands as a solid reminder that their efforts will eventually grow to become something much, much bigger than the young, slender trees they care for about twice a week.
A great partnership between Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), City of Toronto, Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests (LEAF) and Park People brought trees to this, and two other TCHC properties to replace ones lost due to ice storms and insect damage. The trees increase the urban forest canopy and help create vibrant, green communities that promote a healthy quality of life for TCHC tenants.
Because many of the residents at Kendleton simply don’t have the physical capacity to care for the trees, Park People worked with the local high school to connect students in need of volunteer hours with this volunteer opportunity caring for young trees.
The volunteer students were supported by Mariam. They volunteered twice a week right through the Summer. They worked with Thomas Boehler, coordinator of the community garden at Kendleton who spent 12 formative years on his family’s farm in Orno. Thomas, who lives in the building, walks the property each day to pick up any trash he sees. He has also volunteered for 15 years supporting Kendleton’s thriving community garden. He clearly values volunteerism and his wealth of knowledge and ongoing presence help the volunteers glean a deeper appreciation for environmental stewardship.
Thomas says that the community thinks of him as “the community’s gardener.” His reverence for trees is crystal clear as he stares up at the willow tree, saying “whoever decided to plant that tree was …very clever….”
The day we’re there, he greets the students with a huge grin and then gets right down to work, checking off who is on-site that day so their hours will be accurately recorded. Then, he starts helping fill the watering cans.
“The kids are all pulling their own weight,” he says, proudly. Earlier in the heat of summer, many of the trees looked like they weren’t thriving: “The kids were really worried about the trees drying out. But, we kept watering and now they’re almost established.”
It’s one thing to collect volunteer hours to meet high school requirements, but Thomas’ personal commitment to environmental stewardship has helped these trees strike a deeper chord with the students. It’s also meaningful that the students are connected to a dedicated resident.
We asked the student volunteers why trees are important and were struck by the clarity of their answers. Without missing a single beat, one of the volunteers says:
“We had an information session with LEAF about global warming and the part trees play in combatting it. Trees are important for clean air, for providing habitat for wildlife and for managimg flooding.”
Asked how much they care about global warming on a scale of 1-10, they were unanimous that it matters more than anything else.
It’s heartening to know that climate change is so the top of mind for these 15-to-18-year-olds and that they see tree stewardship (watering and caring for the trees) as a valuable way to make a difference on an issue that can make us all feel so helpless and fearful.
They’ve also helped Thomas become more conscious about some of his habits. The volunteers noted that he was wasting excess water across the asphalt. They very quickly reminded him that it could be put to better use on thirsty plants.
After months of careful and consistent watering by this great tree team at Kendleton, the 39 young trees have had a great start. The students are back at school but come once a week after school to work with Thomas to water the trees to the end of September. The trees will need one more year of care, but at Kendleton, we’ve got a formula that works. From our visit, it’s clear that what the students learned from Thomas and the trees help them feel like part of the solution to climate change.
For Thomas, he’s looking forward to seeing the trees in the back garden come to full maturity: “In 5 years it’ll be just gorgeous” he says.