Activist community

Community comes together to plant trees at Pajaro Middle School – Santa Cruz Sentinel

PAJARO — Nearly 100 community members gathered at Pajaro Middle School Saturday morning to plant 50 new trees, from oaks to magnolias, on the school’s campus for the Plant a Tree for Pajaro event. The effort was spurred by the Watsonville Wetlands Watch and is part of the larger community forestry initiative to plant thousands of trees throughout Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley.

“We are so excited to transform this school campus,” said Jonathon Pilch, executive director of Watsonville Wetlands Watch. “This area has one of the lowest tree canopy covers in Monterey Bay and we started this project both to complement the larger watershed restoration work and to increase the canopy because it does so much to the natural environment and human health.”

Volunteers learn how to plant a tree at Pajaro Middle School. Credit: Aric Sleeper / Santa Cruz Sentinel

After a windstorm knocked down some of the only trees on the college campus in 2020, then-school principal Christopher Harris and staff contacted Pilch to see if anything could be done. to plant more. After about two years of working together, Harris was away planting trees with his wife and daughter and about 100 other community members.

“My hope is to create a lush green space for the students,” Harris said. “No one has ever done anything like this to this level, in recorded memory and what we’re doing here is going to last for decades. We’re so excited.”

The event began with a reconnaissance of the land and a demonstration of native song and dance by Patrick Orozco, President of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council, and a tutorial for volunteers on do’s and don’ts of planting trees.

The drought-tolerant trees planted Saturday were purchased with a grant from California ReLeaf and covered a variety of fruit trees to magnolias to oaks, each performing a different function from producing fruit to blocking wind in passing through the shade. The volunteers also received a fruit tree to take home.

Christopher Harris and his family at the Plant a Tree for Pajaro event on Saturday.  Credit: Aric Sleeper / Santa Cruz Sentinel
Christopher Harris and his family at the Plant a Tree for Pajaro event on Saturday. Credit: Aric Sleeper / Santa Cruz Sentinel

Community members joined Watsonville Wetlands Watch paid interns, student volunteers and college faculty and staff, such as sixth and seventh grade teacher Arnold Figueroa and Pajaro middle school principal Juan Alcantar.

“We’re here to beautify the campus and give kids something to be proud of,” Alcantar said. “It gives them ownership of their school.”

“When these kids come back in 15 or 20 years, they can say, this is the tree I planted.” Figueroa added.

Many students had come out armed with all kinds of gardening tools on Saturday, such as Benjamin Ortiz, 13, and his friends since elementary school, and his tree-planting partners, Luis Cortes and Julian Cortes, both aged 12 years old.

“My dad taught me how to garden and that’s why I was interested in doing it,” Benjamin said. “It’s important because trees make the air cooler for everyone.”

Salvador Hernandez, who works for the college’s extended learning program, was having fun helping a few students plant a tree. He was happy to see the Plant a Tree for Pajaro project come to fruition.

“I’ve been saying for a long time that the school needs a facelift,” Hernandez said. “Two years ago we started planting beds in the quad and from there it’s been growing.”

Salvador Hernandez jokes while planting trees with students from Pajaro Middle School.  Credit: Aric Sleeper / Santa Cruz Sentinel
Salvador Hernandez jokes while planting trees with students from Pajaro Middle School. Credit: Aric Sleeper / Santa Cruz Sentinel

Eighth-grade math and science teacher Ben Waite was planting trees near the fence that separates the school campus from the farm fields. The trees will help block the unforgiving wind and dust that blow across campus.

“It’s a great event for the community,” Waite said. “We don’t really have any shade and there’s a lot of wind blowing through, so it will give us some natural protection.”

Waite was planting a tree with one of his former students, Alexa Rodriguez, who is an intern with the Watsonville Wetlands Watch Climate Corps Leadership program, which teaches high school students how to be leaders and serve the community through community restoration initiatives. the environment.

“People working together really bring out a sense of community,” Rodriguez said. “It’s so important because this community is so small and there’s not as much outreach to community programs, especially here in Pajaro.”

The sense of community was pervasive on campus as community members saw each other for the first time in a long time, like Watsonville Wetlands Watch Education Specialist Aimee Mizuno helping one of her former students find the right shovel for the job.

Patrick Orozco teaches volunteers about indigenous culture at the Plant a Tree for Pajaro event.  Credit: Aric Sleeper / Santa Cruz Sentinel
Patrick Orozco teaches volunteers about indigenous culture at the Plant a Tree for Pajaro event. Credit: Aric Sleeper / Santa Cruz Sentinel

“I really wanted to come here today to connect with all the people I’ve worked with, like teachers, alumni, colleagues, and high school students,” Mizuno said. “It was a wonderful event that brings us all together to do something positive and then to deepen those connections so that we can do even more work.”

Climate activist Ami Chen Mills was happy to take a break from the protest and put energy into a project that will have a lasting effect on the community.

“I want to see trees everywhere,” Chen Mills said. “Planting trees is psychologically good for us and great for kids and school.”

All of the school’s faculty volunteers were thrilled that so many community members came out to make the school campus a better place.

“It brings tears to my eyes,” said Mayo Ruiz, 20, a teacher at Pajaro Middle School. “The community is out for these students, and it’s just going to grow from here.”