By Melissa O'Brien
Merissa MacDonald describes herself as a gardener first, who also loves trees. As a wilderness gardener at Bartram’s Garden, a free public park and working farm in Southwest Philadelphia and America’s oldest surviving botanic garden, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to partner with PHS to plant more trees in the community. In 2021, PHS received funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to work with Bartram’s Garden, neighborhood residents, and other community groups to increase tree canopy and green space along the public right-of-way in Southwest Philadelphia. Thanks to this grant, Merissa was brought on as the Bartram’s Garden Tree Program Coordinator, leading PHS's Southwest Tree Tenders group and running the Southwest Tree Crew, a paid internship program for local kids and young adults. In the month of April alone, these two groups have given away or planted more than 120 trees in the zone from 49th to 65th Streets in the City, and from Chester to the Schuylkill River.
Read on to find out more about the youth Tree Crew, how it inspires high schoolers to become tree ambassadors with PHS and on their own, and why more neighbors are getting involved.
The Tree Crew internship program employs up to 16 paid high school interns from Southwest Philadelphia every year. This program runs twice a year, in the spring and the fall at Bartram’s Garden, teaching students to become trained as PHS Tree Tenders and explore the intersectionality of trees through ecology, art, politics, history, and culture. The program runs for 7 - 8 weeks in total, and the students work for 10 hours every week.
Each week of the internship focuses on a different theme. Students learn about the importance of trees and how to use social media to recruit more volunteers and raise awareness about the environment. By the end of the program, students become certified Tree Tenders with experience planting trees in the area. They also gain knowledge to share with others in their community about the numerous environmental and health benefits of trees.
Merissa says that for many of the students, this is their first introduction to the workforce: "While they're having fun, learning, and planting trees, it is also teaching them about timeliness and how to conduct themselves at work. They get to see what they like about the work, what they don't like, and how to advocate for themselves in the workplace.”
Another aspect of Merissa’s job is mobilizing new Tree Tenders groups in Southwest Philadelphia by working with the group leaders to recruit more volunteers. Her goal is to help them become more self-sufficient in the coming years by connecting them with PHS resources. “My job is to combine all of these groups -- the high schoolers who live in Southwest, the leaders who live in Southwest, and myself -- we all make a big team,” says Merissa.
As a team, Merissa and the teen groups are working together to recruit more Tree Tenders and raise awareness about the power of planting trees to enhance the health and well-being of their respective neighborhood. Street trees, which are planted along sidewalks and other public rights of way, are crucial to improving the tree canopy in Philadelphia. However, many residents are skeptical of them prior to learning about all the benefits they provide.
One recent community tree planting at Connell Park, situated near Elmwood Avenue and 65th Street, went a long way toward building connections in the neighborhood. “Meeting new neighbors and hearing their needs and where they want the trees makes all the difference,” says Merissa. After the planting, multiple people reached out to her to say what a beautiful day it was and how it brought people together. As PHS’s mission -- for gardening to be the ultimate connector that brings people of all ages and backgrounds together for a greater purpose -- this program provides those long-lasting bonds.