Palo Alto

East Palo Alto Youth Notices Hometown Lacking One Very Important Resource, Returns From College To Help Fix It

The problem, as Uriel Hernandez saw it, wasn't quite as clear as night and day.

It was more like sun and shade.

East Palo Alto, where Hernandez grew up, had a lot of the former. Atherton, where he went to high school, had plenty of the latter. On his way to and from school each day the transition was dramatic.

"(In Atherton) you have these big trees and these big houses," Hernandez said. "Then you'd take the pedestrian overcrossing, no trees, rundown apartment buildings. The sun beating down on you the asphalt all around."

It was a difference, Hernandez said, one could "feel." But he didn't fully understand what was happening until traveling 3,000 miles and spending four years at college in leafy Vermont.

"Growing up, the family didn't often go out into nature and I didn't have that deeper appreciation for nature until I was really living in it, seeing it up close all the time," Hernandez said.

Feeling so at home surrounded by nature, one would understand Hernandez wishing to stay in the area after graduation. Instead, though, Hernandez returned to his hometown, determined to bring that nature back with him, one tree at a time.

Hernandez began by volunteering for Canopy, a non-profit focused on creating a healthy, urban forest in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. His enthusiasm soon landed him a staff position and then in charge of an ambitious goal: working with young people to plant 500 trees in his hometown by 2020. It's called Branching Out and so far more than 220 trees have been planted, including 7 planted this past weekend.

Study after study has shown that communities with healthy urban forests score well in quality of life measurements such safety, health, and property values.

Hernandez understands this project is not a quick fix for East Palo Alto, but that's part of the beauty.

The trees will take years, and lots of care from the community, to reach shade-producing maturity. All that work, Hernandez says, will give people in East Palo Alto a pride of ownership in the trees and their surroundings.

When the trees are eventually big enough for someone to rest under, they will have earned their moment in the shade.

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