Students learn about trees, careers through eco-friendly initiative

Bob Neary, a leader with the Youth Tree Team, poses with members of the program's bicycle team. Submitted Photo

The headquarters for Keep

Indianapolis Beautiful seems a bit incongruous with its surroundings. Located just

a few blocks from I-65 in Fountain Square, its spinning, energy-producing wind

spires appear to harness the very exhaust from passing cars.

A closer look, however,

reveals that the refurbished warehouse is an oasis of local foliage and simple,

ecologically sound solutions to office waste – marrying office

functionality and environmental savvy, with more than a dash of the cool quirk

emerging in Fountain Square.

Out front, an 8,000-gallon

cylindrical tank collects rainwater to hydrate an adjacent patch of native

plants, providing green space and keeping water out of the city's sewers. The

building's white roof reflects sunlight, insulating the inside. Even the

parking lot is permeable, allowing water to drain through to the ground, and

not into storm drains.

Inside, carpet tiles

assembled from textile mill scraps and recyclable aluminum office furniture

mean less waste when it comes time for replacing them. Skylights and

floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light. There's even a

small courtyard, perfect for an outdoor meeting.

But Keep Indianapolis

Beautiful (KIB) isn't just leading the charge to a greener city by setting an

example with its own office space. Instead of merely promoting green,

eco-friendly practices in a metaphorical sense, they're being quite literal:

namely by planting trees. So far, the group has planted more than 18,700 trees

since 2006.

Early on, however, KIB

realized that many of the spaces needing trees were owned by the city. Planting

in public spaces required paid contractors to water trees and monitor health.

Thus was born KIB's Youth

Tree Team, which wrapped up its annual summer-long program just last week. KIB

pays high school students on its Youth Tree Teams for watering trees, taking

measurements and monitoring the health of plantings in city green spaces.

"We said, 'We have this need

for tree maintenance – is there another need we can meet in the process

of fulfilling our own?'" said Nate Faris, Youth Tree Team director. "We

realized that high schoolers need good summer jobs. So high schoolers get a

good summer job, we get our trees cared for."

Not just a summer job

The Youth Tree Team program

began in 2006 with just a single crew. By this summer, the program had grown to

comprise six crews.

The program is open to all

high school students in the area, but the selection process is very

competitive. In March, applicants faced a challenge course, testing on-the-job

skills like moving mulch and carrying buckets of water. Those who were

comfortable with manual labor and getting dirty volunteered at a KIB

tree-planting before facing a final interview.

This year, only 15 new spots

were available because of returning workers. Faris said about 100 students made

it to the final interview.

The lucky few selected each

summer earn more than just an hourly wage. The students learn to care for trees

— planting, pruning, watering and mulching. But they also learn career

and life skills beyond horticulture.

Each day started with

calisthenics; if a team member arrived late, the whole group had to start over.

The regimen emphasized the importance of punctuality, personal responsibility

and physical fitness.

And KIB emphasizes student

education beyond the Youth Tree Team. Teams worked in the field three days a

week. The fourth day was set aside for an enrichment activity. Some were

directly related to the environment, like rafting on the White River or an

overnight trek into a forest.

Others focused on

professional development. "We try to connect them to green-collar

professionals," Faris explained. "We have them meet nurserymen who grow trees,

landscape architects around the city. In the past they've met the city arborist

or the city forester. So, they kind of get connected to jobs. If they want to

continue in this industry, they have some ideas of where to go."

Bob Neary, a Youth Tree Team

leader, agreed. "When we work with the youth, we want them to take away more

than just a summer job," he said.

While finding a career is an

important end goal, many high school students have reservations about an

intermediate step: college. KIB has thought of this, too. The group makes

visits to college campuses around the state, where student can seek advice

about financial aid.

"For a lot of them, I think

it breaks down the intimidation that they have," Faris said. "Some of them have

never been to a college campus."

While the members of the

Youth Tree Teams can come from any school, KIB has made special efforts to

reach out to students in Indianapolis Public Schools.

"It's a time when people

discover a lot of their own interests or start digging deeper into whatever

they want to do with their lives," Faris said. He emphasized the importance of

reaching out to young people. "It's a good time to not only give these youth a

good start just with a good job, but perhaps to foster their interest in the

environment, to help them discover it."

Green technology

While the Youth Tree Teams

have been monitoring KIB plantings since 2006, this summer marked the inception

of a special crew. Two high school students, led by Neary and

leader-in-training Newton Benegas, traveled the city on bicycles, cataloging

the thousands of trees KIB has planted.

Each day the team began by

printing KIB data about a given plant site — with information about what

species to expect, the number of trees planted and an approximate plant date.

Then, using a GPS unit bracketed to the front of each bike, the team would

travel to the site and note the trees and their conditions.

These data are used to help

KIB determine what species thrive in the varying conditions around the city,

which neighborhoods are taking the best care of their trees, and even what

trees look most aesthetically pleasing. Knowing these variables enables KIB to

effectively plant more trees and move closer to its goal: 100,000 new plantings

by 2017, part of its NeighborWoods initiative launched in 2007.

The data have also been

shared with Butler, IUPUI and IU. Future research might include the

relationship between newly planted trees and crime, temperature and rates of

pediatric asthma.

The students on this

particular tree team enjoyed its unique nature.

"I like the biking part, and

I love being outside," said Anye Carson. She found out about the Youth Tree

Teams through a campaign in her school cafeteria.

Ciera Carter said she also

enjoys traveling by bike, visiting new sites every day. "And you get to

interact with people more," she added.

Benegas noted the physical

benefits of cycling. "And we're in more populated areas," he added. "We're

representing KIB."

The team pedaled 10 to 15

miles and visited up to 500 trees each day, depending on the proximity of the

plantings. By the end of the summer, the bike team had reported on nearly 6,000

plantings around the city.

With or without the added

technology, Faris has noticed the positive ways in which the Tree Teams

represent KIB.

"We go back and look at our

past projects where Youth Tree Teams have been and the trees are thriving," he

said. "I think neighbors have been motivated to get out in the park more or

take more interest in their own park because they see the youth caring for it."