Volunteers both help and heal in tree-planting project

For some clients in the Crossroads Inc. residential substance abuse program in New Haven, the opportunity to plant trees on a recent October day was a confidence booster. But their hard work in a Yale-run program also has benefits for the city: The new trees not only help to beautify the street but they also bring environmental and ecological benefits.

On Oct. 11, a crew of Crossroads residents planted eight trees along Elm Street as part of the Urban Resources Initiative’s (URI) GreenSkills program. The program aids a URI and New Haven initiative to increase the number of trees in the city while also giving work to the underemployed. Eleven trees will have been planted along the street when the project is completed in November.

“The crew enjoys the physical aspect of the work and finds it satisfying to see the end result,” says Margaret Carmalt, GreenSkills manager. “Some of our past apprentices told us it was the first time they have gone to work sober and were able to work hard and have fun. This experience helps them learn that they can do that, and it also helps them have confidence that they can hold a more permanent job.”

URI is a New Haven NGO/Yale partnership based at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies that promotes and fosters community-based land stewardship, environmental education and urban forestry. Through their involvement in the URI program, the Crossroads residents also learn about basic tree anatomy and soil science and about how trees benefit the local ecosystem, Carmalt notes.

Ex-offenders in New Haven’s Empower Enterprises transitional employment service, as well as 18 high school students from Common Ground and the Sound School, also engage in the URI tree-planting project through GreenSkills. The workers are supervised by URI staff and Yale students.

A few years ago, city officials noticed that URI was planting trees for less than the city paid to have professional landscapers do the job. In addition, the URI-planted trees had a 92% survival rate versus a 60% national average for professionals. A key difference, says URI director Colleen Murphy-Dunning, is that volunteers participating in URI’s Community Greenspace program planted the trees and were dedicated to the long-term stewardship. City officials strengthened their partnership with New Haven URI by offering the non-profit the opportunity to serve as the sole source of tree planting, with the city paying for the trees and URI providing the labor.

In October 2009, Mayor John DeStefano announced a program to add 10,000 new trees over the next five years, with half to be planted on private property by companies, universities and other organizations, and half to be planted by URI. The Yale group’s goal this year is to plant 1,000 trees, according to Murphy-Dunning. The newly planted trees on Elm Street came from nurseries in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

URI’s GreenSkills and Community Greenspace programs accomplish more than just increasing the number of the trees and tree stewards in the city. They also help to build communities economically, socially and environmentally, Murphy-Dunning says. “Revitalization of streetscapes like Elm Street is accomplished while simultaneously creating an opportunity to connect our apprentices to nature in a way that improves their lives, helping some of those involved to recuperate,” she explains.

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