Every now and then, someone comes along with a hot
idea that just plain makes sense. Deborah Williamson came up with one
three years ago. She was working for the Kentucky court system,
processing paperwork on juvenile offenders who do community service in
lieu of going to court.
"In talking with the kids,” Williamson recalls, “they expressed a desire to do their public service outdoors. So actually the idea came from the kids.” The idea she's referring to is Target Green, a program in which first-time juvenile offenders plant trees to reclaim abandoned land such as strip mines and gravel pits. Since the program started in 1988, the kids have planted 114,000 seedlings.
Forty-one other states have expressed interest in the idea. Virginia has started a similar program, Michigan has legislation pending to set one up, and Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Albany, New York, are in the process. Byron Hestevold of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been helping get the word out. He credits Williamson as being the “dynamic person who made this go.” Paper companies like Westvaco help out on occasion by providing trees. “The word is out that we can use trees and can get them in the ground,” says Williamson. Local restaurants sometimes send over lunches for the participants.
When Georgia-Pacific had some yellow pines to give away, the company phoned Emily Mead of President Bush's tree-planting program, and she put them in touch with Williamson. Yellow pines do not do well in Kentucky, but the company offered to grow oak seedlings, which are suited, if Target Green would collect acorns.
“We couldn't get enough juvenile offenders together quickly, says Williamson, so I called an environmental educator with the state, who got school kids from some 30 school districts to collect 10,000 acorns. The state nurseries are growing the seedlings, and Georgia-Pacific is paying for it. Our kids will plant them this fall.”
Target Green's second project back in 1988-planting 25,000 trees statewide was funded by a grant from AFA's Global ReLeaf Fund. “That enabled us to get the word out to more juvenile officers,” notes Williamson. Planting trees has been a lifelong love for Deborah Williamson, 33, who studied wildlife management before settling on a master's degree in anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. For her degree she took urban studies and worked with young people at a housing project. She did some field work in Kentucky, then took the job with the court system ...
"People ask me what the heck trees and the court have to do with each other,” she says. “They don't understand the connection. You have to take a holistic perspective when you deal with kids to find out what kind of program will benefit them – find out their interests, where they're from – and not just a punitive approach.” Foresters volunteer to supervise the plantings to make sure the seedlings survive. Some of the young people have ended up with summer jobs at state parks arranged by the volunteers.
The participants also mulch and water trees already planted. In addition to abandoned lands, the sites have included convents, schools, nursing homes, post offices, and housing projects.
Approximately 1,000 young people statewide have participated so far. A University of Michigan graduate student is doing a study to determine whether the program is reducing repeat offenses. Preliminary data from one county indicates that 94 percent of Target Green participants are staying out of court versus a statewide average of 88 percent.
Williamson is investigating possibilities for expanding the program by involving adult offenders who would grow the seedlings in prison. She also wants to bring in a college professor to talk about ozone depletion “so the kids know the significance of what they're doing”. Deborah Williamson feels strongly about trees and the environment. She says, “We all take. This is a chance to give something back.”
This feature: American Forests, July-August, 1991