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Environmental Non-Profit Turning At-Risk Youth Into Landscaping Artists

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LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — A local non-profit is helping at-risk youth find meaningful employment by hiring them to plant trees.

L.A.-based North East Trees has hired approximately 100 young people for green industry job training at Ramona Gardens alone.

As CBS2/KCAL9’s Sandra Mitchell reports, for some, the opportunity turned their lives around.

“I was on a tagging crew. I used to just tag, and tag, and tag and get into fights. Call out my enemies and fight. Getting myself into trouble,” Omar Delgado said.

A teacher told Delgado about North East Trees when he was still in high school and was heading in a dangerous direction.

Delgado says being a part of the organization saved him.

“If not, I would have probably not been here right now. I would probably be in jail or in a gang now. I don’t know. Lost,” he said.

Delgado is currently working with a crew from North East Trees to transform the Boyle Heights housing project in his native Ramona Gardens.

The group is planting dozens of new, native trees and gorgeous “rain gardens”.

“It’s way more beautiful. There’s more habitat coming in – birds, bees – before it was just plain grass,” Freddy Delgado said.

Now in its 22nd year, North East Trees is thriving.

“People love them here. They take care of them and they’re growing really fast,” Miguel Ibarra said.

North East Trees Forestry and Youth Manager Aaron Tomas credits the program with helping to keep youth like Freddy, Omar and Miguel out of trouble by focusing their energy on constructive activities.

“Urban forestry and greening projects not only keep them off the street and keep them busy, but more importantly it instills a pride in place and gives people an opportunity to do something they can be proud about – which is what most humans need,” Tomas said.

But that success does not come without opposition.

“When North East Trees was originally invited to work here, some of the city staff who worked here warned us because some of them were even chased away by gangs. But even in the beginning we were always welcomed by the majority of the people,” he explained.

Resistance appears to be waning.

“We were actually recently given the compliment by a former gang member – a gentleman who told us he was in prison for over 20 years,” Tomas continued. “He said it’s one of the best projects he’s seen and was really happy for us. He wanted to put us in the next edition of “Cholo Style” magazine, which apparently he works for – so we’re hoping to end up in Cholo Style magazine soon.”

Sanford Riggs from the housing authority says in five years North East Trees has planted over 2,600 trees at projects and other large housing developments.

“Our federal budget is being cut continuously and we’re lucky to have this collaboration so we can work together to get these trees at a very low cost,” he said.

Many of North East Trees’ participants have been inspired to join the Forest Service before returning to the organization. Others are working in landscape construction and green job-related fields.

The organization says in over two decades it has planted over 50,000 trees and worked with over 1,000 at-risk youth.

It has also rehabilitated vacant lots and derelict spaces, turning them from unsafe to inviting, all the while improving air quality, storm water infiltration and more.

“The immediacy of the change. They improvement that you see every single day. It’s kind of addicting. You can plant one tree and, wow! That looks great. And plant ten more and it looks even better. Everyone should try it,” Tomas said.

North East Trees is funded entirely from grants and tax deductible donations.

And soon, they’re going global.

Aaron Thomas and his crew are planning a trip to Brazil in October to help with a large reforesting project in the heart of Buenos Aires.

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