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posted: 5/5/2010 12:01 AM

Arbor Day program has its roots at local schools

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There's nothing quite refreshing as spending a little time outdoors with children. In the mind of a young child, each discovery is a new adventure, another exciting chapter in their young lives.

Their curiosity is often amusing, and always heartwarming, with never any shortage of "why" questions.

Bill Donnell enjoys the interaction with young minds as much as he does woods and waters. As the Fox Valley Park District's director of Natural Resources, Forestry and Special Projects, Donnell oversees the annual Arbor Day program involving 20 elementary schools in the area.

This year is the 51st for the park district's co-celebration of Arbor Day, which also involves the Morton Arboretum. In that time, more than 2,200 trees have been planted on the grounds of local schools, and countless young planters have taken valuable lessons from their out-of-the-classroom learning sessions.

"Planting trees is a great educational opportunity for kids," Donnell said. "We want to give them a better understanding of all the benefits trees provide for society."

Their first question usually involves food.

"They love to talk about trees that produce apples and pears and bananas," Donnell said with a chuckle. "Once we answer those questions, we talk about how valuable trees are to everyday life."

What the kids learn is that those big, beautiful wood trunks with green leaves represent quite a legacy. Trees are community assets that improve air quality, protect our water, save energy and improve environmental sustainability.

While that might overwhelm a young mind initially, there's no mistaking their comprehension and appreciation for simple facts.

"Trees help us breathe cleaner air," a preschooler exclaimed profoundly, "and they keep us cool in the summer."

Her classmates were pretty impressed, and that's the point.

Donnell compared the lifestyles of yesteryear - when farming was prevalent - with the metropolitan ways of today's generation. As society has gone from rural to urban, young people have tended to lose that connection with nature that comes from planting, growing and nurturing the land.

There's nothing like a little hands-on experience for young people to create a connection. Donnell and his staff enlist the kids to help plant new trees at each school, a project that also includes mulching and watering as well.

Once that seed is planted in a young mind, the future for trees and a healthier environment take root.

"Trees are real, living things," Donnell tells the kids. "We need to take care of them because they take care of us in return. We're all in this together."

To that end, the park district is embarking on another ambitious planting season in its efforts to reforest our communities. With 2,500 new trees planted Districtwide since 2008, this year's "Plant 1,000 Trees" initiative is already under way with 400 new trees to take up residence in district parks, natural areas and along trails in coming weeks.

"One thousand trees?" a young boy asked. "That's bigger than a forest!"

How quickly they learn about the long-term benefits of trees.

• Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District.