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Looking Out for Mother Earth

Groups such as Gardening Angels and TreePeople seek to raise environmental awareness among youngsters.


It's kind of like an all-you-can-eat Chuck E. Cheese for bugs, worms and spiders, said TreePeople tour guide Rosa Bautista, mixing up a batch of "dirt dessert." Not one of the dozen or so 5- or 6-year-olds watching volunteers to taste the concoction. Nobody wants to lick the bowl.

But everyone is willing to grab a handful of the ecological entree--a mixture of banana peels, apple cores, crunchy brown leaves, green leaves, water and dirt--and pat it all around the base of a young tree. After all, a tree's gotta eat.

And that's the first thing kids learn on their visit to TreePeople in Beverly Hills' Coldwater Canyon Park. Trees live, breathe--some believe even talk--well, they have been trying to tell us something for quite some time now, haven't they?

Trees suck up the city smog and spew out fresh air for us to breathe; they provide us with food, prevent erosion and bring beauty to the city surroundings. It's all so simple really, even a child can understand. . . .

TreePeople has made it its mission to get the word out to youngsters--who in turn tend to remind adults about the importance of plants and trees and taking care of the environment. Three days a week, groups of schoolchildren and Boy and Girl Scouts explore the 44-acre park off Mulholland Drive and Coldwater Canyon Avenue, where mulch piles, seedlings and recycling are part of the playground of kid-friendly, hands-on eco tours. (Family tours and planting projects are held on the weekends.)

"The kids learn they can have an immediate impact by the choices they make," said Gretchen Knudsen, director of elementary education at TreePeople. "Whether to recycle, which affects landfills, or to put trash in the street, which affects the health of the ocean. . . ."

Levi Williams, a kindergartener from Farragut Elementary in Culver City, looked as intense as a scientist doing a lab experiment as he packed dirt into a long plastic tube and held it steady while Bautista dropped in a Canary Island pine tree seed.

"You know," said Patricia Williams, Levi's mother and a chaperon for the recent field trip, "Levi is the hardest in the family to please. And if he was excited, you know it was a good trip."

About 200 or so young visitors come here each week with wide eyes and eager hands and are entrusted with absorbing the information like thirsty plants and taking it back to share with their families. They will, TreePeople volunteers believe, help make a difference in the effort to maintain a healthy environment. But to Levi and his classmates, it's also a lot of fun.

In downtown Los Angeles, the students at Birdielee V. Bright Elementary School on 36th Street are also having fun doing their part for the environment. With the help of the Gardening Angels, part of University of California's Common Ground Garden Program, and the nonprofit Gardens for Kids, they have transformed the gray asphalt that surrounds their school with thriving beds of carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, flowering plants and trees. Bright Elementary is one of about 100 L.A. city schools that participate in the Gardening Angels program.

"The program has just blossomed," said Bright Elementary teacher Pixie Beery, whose kindergarten class helps maintain the beds with the help of Gardening Angels--volunteers who are mostly parents. "They learn how it benefits the community [and] it's something they can do at home."

Manuel Bolanos, a Gardening Angel volunteer and the father of Edgar, a second-grader at Bright Elementary, said that since his son started growing vegetables at school and in their backyard, Edgar now asks where everything comes from. "He gets a kick out of it," Bolanos said. "He asks me how they get the milk. Since he's been doing this, he wants to know everything."

Some schools have a PTA and various sources of financial support. Others, like Bright, have sought grants and volunteer help from various gardening groups. The efforts are visible all around Bright, where planters are full of lush plants, and young seedlings are roped off with yarn and wooden stakes.

Twice a year, the school has a harvest and invites parents. There are carrots and radishes to pull up and cabbages, strawberries, tomatoes, corn and lettuce to pick. "We pull out the vegetables and [the children's] faces look like, 'It's a miracle,' " Beery said. "It is a miracle.' "

The whole process, of course, has spread into the classroom as well, where the gardening experience is tied in with math lessons, science and physics. "They learn that some things work, some don't, just like life," Beery said.

The process is ongoing, as seeds are acquired from Gardening Angels and money for soil and equipment comes from Gardens for Kids. Much of the volunteer support comes from parents, many of whom have found this as a way to get involved with the school, Beery said.

It's a slow but rewarding process, said Bolanos, who is a regular around the gardens and can't help but think big.

"What we would like to have now is more space," he said, "so we can plant watermelon."


TreePeople needs volunteers to help plant the Mother's Day Forest at Kenneth Hahn Park's Olympic Forest, off La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, on Sunday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. You can also dedicate a tree in your mother's name for $15 each, five for $50. Information about this and other TreePeople programs: (818) 753-4600.

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