Los Angeles singles — an earth-friendly organization in your city needs volunteers to help nature heal itself — and spread the gospel that trees are people too.
One recent Saturday morning, 6-year-old Sunny Rae Keller put on her favorite sun hat and set off with her mom to a block party in Studio City’s Colfax Meadows, not far from where she lives. By lunchtime, she had made a pair of new friends. Although younger than her, they were about four times as tall, and went by strange names she found difficult to pronounce — Magnolia grandiflora and Jacaranda mimosifolia. Which is why Sunny decided to call them Maggie the Magnolia and Jackie the Jacaranda instead.
Since she was a mere tot — 2 years old, to be precise — Sunny has regularly accompanied her mother, artist Lois Keller, to planting events organized in their neighborhood by TreePeople, a local, eco-minded nonprofit group that took root in the early ’70s. The volunteer-based program is one of the largest environmental enterprises in the state, with a roster of 2,000 active volunteers and an additional 8,000 dues-paying members committed to refurbishing the L.A. arbor-scape at get-togethers held in parks, forests and city streets.
For Sunny and other children of her age, these are festive occasions: They play together, fill out coloring books and snack on pizza. But they also get to wear tiny gardening mitts and scratch at the soil with miniature shovels, in imitation of their parents. As kids mimic the adults’ gestures — digging holes, scattering mulch around the bases of freshly planted saplings — they also absorb profound life lessons: Plant a tree, and you plant hope. When you nurture the sycamore in your front yard, you look after the entire planet.
These are, after all, the keystone beliefs of TreePeople’s gospel. “We’re all about strengthening community ties and encouraging residents to be responsible and proactive about the environment,” said Lisa Cahill, a city forestry manager with the organization who was on hand at the Colfax Meadows event. “Sure, we’ll also teach you how to plant a tree, although you hardly need much training for that — it’s quite easy.”
Says TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis, “Our biggest challenge has always been people’s common belief that they don’t make a difference. Of course we all do! It’s whether we are conscious of it and choose to make a positive difference.”
At the age of 15, when most teens obsess over record collections and dates, Lipkis rallied a handful of summer-camp buddies to green up a bald patch of the San Bernardino Mountains. His efforts snowballed over the course of the next four decades. TreePeople’s planting of 2 million trees around town in time for the 1984 Olympics grabbed headlines and shoved the group’s agenda into the limelight. Today, celebrities like Annette Bening routinely roll up their sleeves at TreePeople events, and the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Jamie Lee Curtis donate funds to sponsor projects coordinated by the group, such as the ongoing reforestation of the Greater L.A. Basin.
In many cultures, the act of planting a tree serves as a ceremonial marker for milestone moments: birth, marriage or the consecration of a new home. Though you’d never find this kind of stuff spelled out in TreePeople’s manifesto, longtime volunteers with the group report that stronger family ties or bonds of friendship has been an unexpected boon.
Joe Vargas, a 74-year-old aerospace-industry retiree, got involved with TreePeople by chance. “My grandson needed to perform community-service hours,” the West Hills resident says. “I found out that he could work his hours at TreePeople, and since I was going to be his source of transportation, I thought it would be nice to go along and hang out while he performed his tasks. Instead, I ended up working by his side. I loved it so much that when he finished his hours, I stayed on. As a result, I’ve been volunteering for the project for over nine years.”
In truth, the ambiance at TreePeople’s tree-planting parties can be addictive. For each city-street planting, volunteers first paper the neighborhood with ads touting the event and secure planting permits, tools and potted saplings. Though participants might travel over hill and dale to attend, the gatherings they tend to feel like intimate neighborhood parties. Typically, a block is cordoned off, with local residents providing breakfast spreads and setting up a kiddie corner replete with toys and drawing supplies.
After volunteers gulp down a cup of coffee and witness a live tree-planting demo from senior TreePeople volunteers, they spread out and work on planting trees on their own. Some of the steps involved provide a strenuous workout — digging a proper planting hole or pounding into the ground stakes meant to support a fragile sapling will certainly make you sweat. But the highlight of each individual planting — when participants join hands in a circle and welcome the tree with a joyous chant — has kids and adults alike shrieking with delight.
Part of the appeal in attending is the diverse mix of L.A. residents who show up: singles and couples working elbow to elbow, and sometimes three generations’ worth of residents — grandpa, pop and sons, all massaging a sapling’s roots before placing it into the ground.
Some volunteers testify to how being part of this sort of group effort to better the city has instigated a paradigm shift in their daily outlook on their surroundings. Janet Best, a 28-year-old administrative assistant with the RAND Corporation who lives in Brentwood, never misses any weekend plantings. “I try to switch from mountain planting to city-street plantings often,” she says. “Every single time I head out for an event, I learn something new. Now, I go around noticing and fixing trees every time I walk down the street.”
One imagines a time not so far off in the future when little Sunny Rae Keller will toddle off to a tree planting on her own. When she took leave from her latest event, the skies were hanging close overhead and the air was redolent with the smells of spring — grass, orange blossoms and the barely there scent of camphor laurels. As she walked away with her mother, she kissed off a salute to her new tree friends: “Goodbye, Maggie! Goodbye, Jackie!”
Copyright © Sorina Diaconescu / 2014 Singular Communications, LLC.
Singles in Los Angeles: volunteer with TreePeople for current local reforestation efforts or to simply help green up an L.A. thoroughfare.
12601 Mulholland Dr., Beverly Hills;