A tree grows in the Newark neighborhood Ashanti used to call home. And she planted it there.
Ashanti was one of several YouthBuild Newark students who celebrated Arbor Day by planting cherry trees, maples and red pines in the Fairmount section of the city, where the streets are dotted with burnt-out, boarded up buildings.
But the mass planting, coordinated by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, brightened six blocks around the 13th Avenue School, where more than 500 volunteers from all over the state, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, planted a total of 221 trees.
It wasn’t easy. As YouthBuild student Ebony learned, the rocky soil near the school was tough to dig up, and the trees weighed a few hundred pounds.
“We had to dig down deep,” said Ebony. “My arms hurt. But it’s worth it.”
Ashanti grew up in the Fairmount section and was proud to be making changes there. “I think it makes the neighborhood better,” said Ashanti, 22. “This is my old neighborhood, so every time I come across this tree, I’m going to embrace it. I’ll know these trees were planted because of me.”
According to Shannon Buckley of the New Jersey Tree Foundation, the trees will do more than sit there looking pretty. They’ll keep residents cooler in the summer. “They counter what’s known as the ‘urban heat island effect,” she said. “That’s a term used to describe an increase in temperature in a heavily-paved area. When there’s less soil, there’s less moisture in the soil and consequently in the atmosphere. That’s why Sussex County is ten degrees cooler than Newark. Because there are more trees.”
For 61 years, the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry has chosen a town in which to celebrate Arbor Day. This year, they picked Newark because the city was having “a renaissance,” said officials.
Ashanti feels like she’s had a renaissance herself since enrolling in YouthBuild Newark in December. She’s overcome her self-destructive past and is focusing on college. She hopes to get a degree in mass communication. “I was given a second chance by God to do something with myself,” she said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”