By Aric Sleeper | Santa Cruz Sentinel
More than 50 trees were planted at the school
PAJARO — Nearly 100 community members gathered at Pajaro Middle School on 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 a part of the larger community forest initiative intended to plant thousands of trees all over Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley.
“We’re really excited to transform this school campus,” said Jonathon Pilch, executive director of the Watsonville Wetlands Watch. “This area has one of the lowest tree canopy covers in the Monterey Bay and we started this project to both complement the larger watershed restoration work and also to increase the tree canopy because it does so much for the natural environment and human health.”
After a wind storm felled some of the only trees on the middle school’s campus in 2020, the school’s principal at that time, Christopher Harris, along with staff, reached out to Pilch to see if anything could be done about planting more. After about two years of collaboration, Harris was out 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,” said Harris. “No one’s ever done anything like this at this level, in recorded memory and what we are doing here is going to last decades. We are so excited.”
The event began with a land acknowledgement and demonstration of indigenous song and dance from Patrick Orozco chair of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council, and a tutorial for volunteers about the do’s and don’ts of tree planting.
The drought tolerant trees planted Saturday were purchased with a grant from California ReLeaf, and spanned in variety from fruit trees to magnolias to oaks with each providing a different function from bearing fruit to blocking wind to providing shade. Volunteers were also provided with a fruit tree to take home.
Community members joined with Watsonville Wetlands Watch paid interns, student volunteers and middle school faculty and staff such as sixth and seventh grade teacher Arnold Figueroa and Pajaro Middle School Principal Juan Alcantar.
“We are out here to beautify the campus and give the kids something to be proud of,” said Alcantar. “This gives them ownership of their school.”
“When these kids come back in 15 or 20 years, they can say, that’s the tree that I planted.” added Figueroa.
Numerous students were out armed with all forms of gardening tools Saturday such as 13-year-old Benjamin Ortiz and his friends since elementary school, and tree planting partners, Luis Cortes and Julian Cortes, both 12.
“My dad has been teaching me about gardening and that’s why I was interested in doing this,” said Benjamin. “It’s important because trees make the air fresher for everybody.”
Salvador Hernandez, who works for the middle school’s extended learning program, was having a blast helping a few of the students plant a tree. He was happy to see the Plant a Tree for Pajaro project come into fruition.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that the school needs a face-lift,” said Hernandez. “Two years ago we started planting garden beds in the quad and from there it’s growing.”
Eighth grade math and science teacher Ben Waite was planting trees near the fence that separates the school campus with agricultural fields. The trees will help block the unforgiving wind and dust coming from blowing through the campus.
“This is a great event for the community,” said Waite. “We don’t really have any shade and there’s lots of wind that comes through so this will give us some natural protection.”
Waite was planting a tree with one of his former students, Alexa Rodriguez, who serves as an intern for the Watsonville Wetlands Watch Climate Corps Leadership program, which teaches high school students how to become leaders and serve the community through environmental restoration initiatives.
“People working together really brings out a sense of community,” said Rodriguez. “It’s so important because this community is so small and there isn’t as much awareness about community programs especially here in Pajaro.”
The sense of community was pervasive throughout the campus as community members saw each other again for the first time in a long time such as Watsonville Wetlands Watch Education Specialist Aimee Mizuno who was helping one of her former students find just the right shovel for the job.
“I really wanted to come out here today to connect with all of the people I’ve worked with like teachers, former students, coworkers and high schoolers,” said Mizuno. “It’s been a wonderful event that brings all of us together to do something positive and then to deepen those connections so we can do even more work.”
Climate activist Ami Chen Mills was happy to take a break from protesting and put energy into a project that will have a longstanding effect on the community.
“I want to see trees everywhere,” said Chen Mills. “Planting trees is psychologically good for us and this is great for the kids and the school.”
All of the school’s faculty volunteers were overjoyed with the fact that so many community members came out to make the school campus a better place.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” said 20-year Pajaro Middle School teacher Mayo Ruiz. “The community came out for these students, and it’s just going to grow from here.”