The Onondaga Earth Corps is one of the shining success stories out of both of Gifford’s neighborhood initiatives and an example of how a small program grant can evolve into a significant community benefit. Since its inception in 2004 the OEC has empowered youth to be active participants in creating positive change for their communities and the environment through job training, community service learning and environmental stewardship. In the past eight years OEC has employed over 190 youth and eight adults – planting and maintaining trees, gardens and lawns – and is now sustained through grants and contracts with county and nonprofit agencies. From 2004-2012 OEC planted 684 trees, 960 plants and cared for 1,345 trees; installed nine rain gardens and installed and/or built 43 rain barrels; inventoried 540 trees and 1,816 tree sites and educated over 4,100 community members.
In 2004 the Foundation helped create the Eli MacDonald Green Team, a local landscaper’s vision of employing Southside youth to learn work skills and improve their community. In 2005 the Green Team expanded and became the Onondaga Earths Corps which was sustained initially through grants from Gifford, the Central New York Community Foundation and the County office of Aging and Youth. The program has grown by leaps and bounds under the leadership of Greg Michel and is currently under contract with Onondaga County and numerous not-for-profit organizations to help restore Syracuse’s urban forest and maintain its green infrastructure installations. They receive additional funds through grants from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, US EPA, and through private donations.
But what better way to understand the OEC’s impact on our community than by reading the words of participants and staff themselves:
Mered Billue (Tree Crew 2013)
This is my second year working as a crew member. In 2012, I worked with the green infrastructure (GI) crew. During that time we built rain gardens, installed rain barrels and maintained some city lots. We provided weeding, mulching, and cleaning bioswale all year round. We also educated youth workers on the benefits of green infrastructure, held outreach programs in neighborhoods, and offered workshops. Our workshops explained the benefits of GI to city executives and the very people that occupy those communities. Last year was a very successful year for the Onondaga Earth Corps.
This year I am a member of the OEC tree crew and it is very different from doing green infrastructure. Our team came up with a system of planting trees. It’s very effective since we cut down on the amount of time it takes to plant as well as the clean up afterwards. The director of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) said that we turned tree planting into a craft and he really enjoyed working with us. We also work with the city of Syracuse Arborist, Steve Harris, and members from CCE to help us gain further knowledge and it’s paying off. I’m very proud to be a member of Onondaga Earth Corps. I hope you all can see the work we have done around Syracuse.
Tyrone Cannon (Tree Crew 2013)
Starting this job I had no experience in tree planting or trees for that matter. For the first three weeks I got so dirty, and for every tree we planted we left a mess that slowed our progress down significantly. At the time I did not care about efficiency. All I thought about was the heat and the pain from the physical labor involved in tree planting. Gradually, things started to come together because I became more involved in our work. I realized I was getting physically in shape and I was beginning to enjoy what I do.
I learned a lot during the past few months. I know my trees and most importantly, I understand the purpose and the benefits of trees in our way of living. I am proud to say that the 2013 Tree Crew has crafted a tree planting system that was approved by the City Arborist and the Director of Cornell Corporative Extension.
I would have never thought that I would be planting trees in my life; but now I have a new found respect and passion for trees. I love my job, and now when I walk down the streets I look around and I know I am making a difference in my community. And that’s what I think O.E.C is all about…. making a difference.
Ioane Etuale (Tree Crew Supervisor)
When I arrived in Syracuse, I was literarily a fish out of water. Being born and raised in the tropical South Pacific did not prepare me for the long, snowy winters and lack of sunshine. Despite feeling lost and misunderstood, I was determined to find a way to survive. I learned a long time ago, that no matter how different people, land, culture and languages are, one will always find common ground.
With that in mind, I shifted my focus back to one of the most common elements of our existence, Mother Nature. It was there that I found my connection to this land. Staying close to Mother Nature has helped me understand how the environment was once upon a time, and what it will become as a result of our current actions or lack thereof. I saw a population drifting away from the natural environment and becoming less and less aware of the benefits it offers.
By the time I became acclimated to Syracuse way of life, I knew what I wanted to do. I want to attract people back to nature and do all I can to bring nature to the people. When Onondaga Earth Corps hired me to supervise the Tree Crew, I saw it as a great opportunity to fulfill this mission. Being able to change the world one tree at a time, and help communities one youth at a time makes me think I am fighting a good fight. The crew and I have truly come together, and we intend to make this program a success.