Youth-Driven County Tree Team helps build a healthier environment in the historically underserved West Gresham neighborhood

March 31, 2021

It’s 10 o’clock on an overcast Saturday morning and Diana Hernandez and Lesly Rodriguez squat by a patch of dirt, patting down remaining soil over a freshly planted sapling. While many of their fellow classmates are still waking up or lounging around in their pajamas, these Portland State University students are hard at work all day planting trees across the Rockwood neighborhood. 

Hernandez and Rodriguez are part of the Gresham Tree Team, a four-member group led by Ariele Affigne from the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability working to get more trees into West Gresham. This team is just one component of the project Green Gresham Healthy Gresham (GGHG), whose goal is to ensure a healthier urban environment for people in West Gresham, a lower income community that has been historically underserved. 

Started in 2018, the project meshes the expertise of the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability, the City of Gresham and Friends of Trees, to bring a tree-planting program, commonplace in the City of Portland for decades, to Gresham for the first time. 

Diana Hernandez and Lesly Rodriguez are part of the Gresham Green Team, a four-person planting trees in West Gresham

“The Tree Team is a core component of Green Gresham, Healthy Gresham,” says Office of Sustainability Director John Wasiutynski. “While increasing the amount of trees and improving Rockwood's local climate are a key part of the program, we wanted to also make sure youth employment and job training were a part of the project, particularly with a focus on youth who traditionally experience barriers to employment.”

For members of the Tree Team, who work up to 20 hours a week, planting trees is all about giving back to the community in a way that benefits them both in the short and long-term.

“My favorite thing is knowing I’m planting trees for the future generation,” Hernandez says.

“Even though it may not benefit me because they’re smaller trees, in the future it’s going to benefit the future generations and… better the environment and public health of a low income neighborhood.”

And during a pandemic which has left many feeling isolated, Rodriguez and Hernandez say the connections they were able to make with the members of their team while in the field have been invaluable. 

“It can be kind of difficult to stay focused in online classes, especially with Zoom classes and Zoom fatigue,” Hernandez says. “Meeting new people and getting outside during the COVID-19 pandemic is great.” 

“(With the internship), even though it’s cold, you forget about it and you just enjoy being outdoors and being with other people and socializing,” Rodriguez says. “It’s just been fun.”

Aside from planting trees, Rodriguez says the team collects data to determine optimal tree planting spots for future Tree Team interns. Wasiutynski expects a new crew of interns who are enthusiastic about planting trees this summer. 

Away from the field, members of the Gresham Tree Team expand their knowledge of the environment through articles and data entry. 

“We learn in person, but we’re also learning about the environment and how connected we are from nature,” Rodriguez says.

“I would definitely suggest this internship to other people. You learn a lot about the environment and how trees are so similar to humans, and how we’re both able to sustain ourselves.”

The project has been made possible because of a grant from the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (EMSWCD). Projects like these are key to the agency's mission of protecting natural resources in Multnomah County. The EMSWCD is a unit of local government serving Multnomah County east of the Willamette River. They are led by an elected board of five directors and several associate directors.