My Volunteer Journal: Episode 14 – Joining the Tribe of the TreePeople

newtree1 In 1973 when Andy Lipkis was 15 years old trees in Los Angeles were dying at an alarming rate due, in part, to the horrific smog. Many people told Andy he could do nothing to help fix the problem, but he didn’t listen.  During summer camp he decided to mobilize his fellow campers, take an abandoned parking lot and convert it into a meadow with smog resistant trees.  The project was a success and a good monster had been created. Andy never stopped planting.  He went on to found the group TreePeople and has been honored worldwide for his efforts to plant millions of trees.

On March 9th a volunteer day for TreePeople was organized by Derek a teenager trying to complete his requirements for the prestigious Eagle Scout award.  I signed up to attend online as did over 45 other participants.  We were going to help restore Orcutt Ranch in West Hills, CA by planting 30 grapefruit trees.

 When I arrived at Orcutt Ranch I signed in at the TreePeople tent and grabbed some of the provided snacks*.  Once everyone was assembled we marched over to a pre-dug hole and got a brief lecture from the TreePeople on how to properly plant a tree (volunteering with tree planting organization = free gardening class). Then the TreePeople explained how every time they plant a tree they join hands in a circle around the tree and chant to officially name it – the chant goes like this: 

 “Trees need people. People need trees. Welcome X.”

 We were dismissed from the circle to grab our supplies from the truck, divide into groups of 3 or 4, and find a tree to plant (the trees had been laid out across the park).  I was alone, again, because of the early morning start to the activity so I handed out supplies from the truck.  As I handed a bucket to one man I mentioned to a volunteer organizers next to him that I didn’t have a group so she could put me where she needed me.  The man piped up, “You can join us.  We only have three.”  And thus I was adopted into the tree-planting group of Nick, Dan, and KiYun – oh and toddler Kelley who taste tested the dirt before we chose a place to dig.

 The ground was soft so we quickly dug a hole twice the size of the tree’s root ball.  Then we jumped in the hole to do “the compression dance” to make sure the ground was packed and there were no air pockets.  The heavy four-foot tall tree was dropped into the hole, covered with dirt, staked for support, had a berm built around it, and finally was watered. The difficult challenge of naming it was all we had left to accomplish and so we decided to be ironic.  Joining hands around the baby tree we chanted, 

 “Trees need people.  People need trees.  Welcome Prime Rib.”

 My group then roamed the grounds looking for other groups to help or boss around.  We carried more gallons of water, lifted trees, dug berms, and generally exhausted ourselves.

 Before we sat down for our reward lunch in the shade of the orange grove I got a chance to talk to TreePeople’s Volunteer Manager Lisa Sotelo. She explained that TreePeople plant citrus trees in California because they are extremely drought tolerant.  Who would have thought?  A little tree that produces hundreds of balls of juice – drought resistant.  TreePeople also have a Fruit Tree Program that plants fruit trees in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to not only clean up the air, but also offer nutritional sustenance.

 Today TreePeople holds events every week all over the Los Angeles County. Check out the calendar here. If you don’t live in Los Angeles don’t worry Andy helped inspire groups all over the country and around the world like the organizations listed on the Alliance for Community Trees and The Arbor Day Foundation websites.  Happy planting everyone!

 *I learned from this volunteer adventure that if one goes to Scout organized volunteer events you will probably be well fed as the parents like to provide food.