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    Need Trees? Call TreePeople

    Last year TreePeople received a package of letters from a group of students at Sylvan Elementary School in Van Nuys.

    Letter from a Sylvan Elementary School student asking for trees.

    Over the summer three trees had been cut down. Students left in June, came back in August, and the trees were gone.

    Tree People kicked into action. They talked to the principal, the teachers, and the parents.

    This October, TreePeople, along with the parents they trained and worked with over the year, will plant seven trees at Sylvan Elementary—three to replace the ones that were chopped down, plus four more.

    Letter from another Sylvan Elementary School student, begging for trees, and shade.Who Are the TreePeople?

    This is just one project that the nearly 40-year-old environmental non-profit has done in Los Angeles schools. Since Tree People was started by Andy Lipkis in 1973, Tree People has planted more than 1.5 million trees. TreePeople’s mission is to “inspire, engage and support people to take personal responsibility for the urban environment, making it safe, healthy, fun and sustainable and to share the process as a model for the world.”

    Early efforts focused on educating and inspiring people to plant and care for trees, according to the non-profit. Trees, they say, mean “cooler temperatures, cleaner air, replenished groundwater supplies and a safer, more beautiful city.”

    Lipkis started Tree People when he was 17. At 15 he went to the San Bernardino Mountains and saw smog was killing the trees. He decided he wanted to plant a tree for every tree that died. But how?

    He learned that the Forest Service grows pine trees, and the seedlings they don’t use or sell they bulldoze and kill. He asked for the seedlings, so he could plant them himself.

    Children Can Do Amazing Things

    With perseverance, Lipkis cut through the red tape, and got the seedlings. He was storing them in a backyard in Sonoma, but he needed to get them in the ground before they died.

    It would cost .50 to plant a tree.

    “Before you know it Andy started getting mail from all these children to help him plant the trees,” said Rosie Donis, who manages the elementary education department for Tree People. “The kids were the ones who wanted to make a difference, who believe they still can make a difference.

    “That’s why we concentrate on schools. Children can do amazing things. Children are the ones who are teaching the parents. A lot of these schools are just blacktops. I don’t know when they started cutting down the trees.

    Today in Los Angeles, a lot of public schools don’t have any greenery. A lot of schools need it, want it and ask for it, Donis said. Many school yards are paved from one side to another. Lots of schoolyard trees are old now, and are dying, or being cut down because branches are falling and are a danger to children. Budget cuts in recent years mean there has been less maintenance of existing trees, and less water for trees that need it. The result is that more trees have been removed—and not replaced.

    How TreePeople Does It

    TreePeople offers a way to bring trees back.

    But they don’t just arrive and say, ‘You need trees and we are going to do it.’”

    TreePeople educates.

    “You have to have a group of teachers, parents and community members, who want to be the green team for that project,” Donis said. “It is not going to do any good if the trees are not taken care of—they are going to die.”

    Sylvan Elementary School teacher and her class.

    First, parents or community members must take TreePeople’s Citizen Forester Program, to learn to plant a tree at the right place, to learn how water flows at a school, to learn how much it costs to get a tree donated, and how to organize to get it planted.

    For schools to take the lessons, to learn how to do it, to do all the paperwork and get all the permits, can take three to six months. Since TreePeople started they have added Citizen Forester in Espanol, to allow Spanish-speaking parents to get involved. The Spanish language classes are offered at the school site in eight lessons.

    “The whole process is a little scary,” said Donis. “This is to teach parents to make it their own—so at the end it is their project.”

    The goal, Donis said, is to encourage parents, community members and kids to plant more trees. TreePeople is giving them the tools to be able to do this in the future.

    “It doesn’t cost them anything. We are able to provide these services,” she said. “We apply for grants for the asphalt cuts.”

    One of the lessons, she said, is to teach schools how much the whole process costs. If the principal can apply for grants, they encourage them to do so. People have donated money so this can happen. TreePeople wants those who receive to understand the value of the labor, the trees, the process.

    TreePeople and LAUSD

    Tree People works very closely with the Los Angeles Unified School District. They have the LAUSD tree list, to see which trees work best. At Sylvan the parents picked trees that were fast-growing, and drought tolerant.

    In a way, Donis said, TreePeople’s role is to teach parents and schools how to work with LAUSD.

    “A parent from a school might have a really hard time getting a permit to plant a tree at the school,” Donis said. “They don’t know how to navigate LAUSD. It would be hard for the Average Joe to do it—not impossible—but harder. But once you teach them how to do it—a normal person would be able to do it. We shepherd them through, and don’t need to hold their hands as much.”

    TreePeople works all over the city, with whoever asks for help. But parts of the San Fernando Valley have been a special focus. TreePeople did a map of the entire city, analyzing which neighborhoods have more shade, and which have less. They learned that parts of the San Fernando Valley, Long Beach and San Pedro have the least shade and the most flooding, and that those characteristics are often connected. (Flooding was happening because there were not enough trees, and too much cement.)

    “But we work with any school,” Donis said. “If the school reaches out, we go ahead and help them.”

    Napa Elementary School in Board District 3

    One school in Board District 3 that reached out was Napa Elementary.

    Principal Victoria Christie said her school wanted the trees because there is very little shade on her campus, especially on the playground. The schoolyard is all blacktop and the trees that were there have died and been removed over the years.

    TreePeople sent out their experts and got to work. Napa formed a “Green Team” and put together a plan. Soon 29 new trees will go in. They are being planted in strategic places—such as around the play structures and basketball courts, replacing dead landscaping in front of the school, and spots that will shade classrooms that get hot sun in the afternoons.

    Christie said their TreePeople contact walked the campus with them and listened to their needs. They looked at the drainage patterns and tried to plant the trees in places that could be watered with run-off. They helped with the permitting process, and they will be cutting into the asphalt to make space for the trees. And Napa did not have to pay a cent.

    Kids are involved, too. Certain classrooms will adopt trees. There are carts the students will use to roll along with buckets and water the trees themselves—learning lessons in care and the environment as they do so.

    “They were like angels that just appeared,” Christie said. “They (TreePeople) came with all the knowledge to do this. They do all the permits and they completely took charge. It is going to change the way this campus looks dramatically.”

    The Chisme Effect

    Donis hopes the word will spread. She said when they went into Compton and started working with parents in schools, they witnessed something incredible that they dubbed the chisme (translation: gossip) effect.  Parents who took part in Citizen Forester Espanol told other moms, who told other moms, and the program spread, to school after school after school.

    “That is what we are hoping to spark in the San Fernando Valley,” Donis said. “We have to meet with the principal first. I will go and answer all the questions, and get permission to do a presentation at the parent center. If the parent center says we want to do a project, we will start. That is how it happens…”

    If you are interested in having Tree People come to your school, go to their web site: or contact Rosa Donis at 310-228-8447, or

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