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SOUTH-CENTRAL : Cultivating Jobs, Hope and Trees

January 09, 1994|SANDRA HERNANDEZ

Some might call them modern-day Johnny Appleseeds, but they prefer to think of themselves as businessmen learning to plant trees in a concrete desert.

"This is an opportunity to start a small business," said Kirk James, one of five men from the Union Rescue Mission taking part in a tree-planting course. "Any doors that are open because of this will be part of my recovery."

James, 32, will begin landscaping classes next month in Watts as part of an initiative organized by Tree People, CB Commercial Realty and the Union Rescue Mission. Organizers want to provide training to recovering drug addicts while helping beautify the community.

The participants will take part in a five-week forestry program beginning this month, where they learn everything from the city's tree-planting requirements to how to protect the roots of plants.

The seed for the project was planted when Steve Demming, an executive at CB Commercial, approached a group of real estate agents to discuss what might be done to help rebuild areas that had been hit hard in the 1992 riots.

"We contacted the Rebuild LA people, Peter Ueberroth's group, and they weren't ready to direct us in any constructive fashion, so they suggested we do our own thing," Demming said. "So a group of us, about 20, got together and tried to come up with ideas about how we could contribute to the community, and one of the ideas was this."

Within a year, the real estate agents had raised $15,000 in contributions, and they contacted Tree People, a Los Angeles-based environmental group dedicated to promoting tree planting, and Union Rescue Mission in Downtown. The money will be used to train crews and pay participants $6.50 an hour while they learn to create a greenbelt in the city.

Participants were selected based on their performance in the mission's recovery program as well as their interest in landscaping.

For Morgan Selva, the program will give him another chance to pursue a landscaping business he lost in the late 1980s. He then found himself homeless. "If I decide to go back to it, I can have a better business because I'll have learned the right way to do things," he said.

"There is a reason we're in South-Central and Watts, and that's because we decided South-Central is generally underserved," said Hilma Cohn, director of Tree People's forestry program. "It is an area that desperately could use some trees."

For Demming, the program has the potential to provide jobs by creating minority-owned companies that provide tree maintenance to companies in Los Angeles. "There is still about $20 million being spent by companies on landscaping, (little) of which goes to minority-owned companies," Demming said.

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