“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago,” a Chinese proverb says. “The second best time is today.”  The same can be said for cultivating the future leaders in our community. This past summer, KYCC Environmental Services Youth Summer Program Volunteer Deborah Oh, alongside her team, helped plant hundreds of desperately needed trees in South Los Angeles.

Oh was one of nine youth, between the ages of 16 to 24, whom KYCC hired to participate in our tree planting and graffiti removal programs, as part of our longstanding partnership with the City of Los Angeles Office of Community Beautification. This program was part of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Hire LA’s Youth initiative.

Some youth came from Koreatown, while others traveled from as far away as the San Fernando Valley.  The group was diverse as the community it served, and they bonded over the common goal to make the community safer, healthier, and more beautiful to live in.

Deborah, 16, had never had a job or been exposed to diverse communities. She was shy, and looked as if she had never picked up a shovel.  However, once she did pick up that shovel, it transformed her like Cinderella’s slipper. Within three months, Deborah and her team planted 600 trees in South Los Angeles.  While most teens enjoyed lazy summer days sleeping in, she was up and at work by 6:30 a.m., and planting trees by 7:30 a.m. The days were hot, tiring, and pushed each team members limits to stay positive.

“I kept waiting for Deborah to come back saying that it was too much, that the work was getting to her,” says Ryan Allen, KYCC Environmental Services Manager. “Instead, she would walk in the office with a big smile, proudly displaying her newfound muscles.”

Shortly after she had completed her summer job, Deborah emailed KYCC to let them know how much she had been positively impacted.  “I am so grateful to KYCC for providing me with the incredible opportunity to work with Environmental Services this summer,” she wrote. “Despite how hard the work was, I learned a lot planting trees and getting to know new people. This summer job completely changed my view of life outside of my own community and motivated me to give back to the L.A. community more.”

Never having considered environmental and community-based work before, Deborah says she is looking to major in an environmental field as an undergrad.  She also started an eco-club at her high school and is in the process of planning tree planting projects for her community. What started out as a simple summer job turned into a life-changing experience for Deborah!

Special thanks to all of our 2014 KYCC Environmental Services Summer Youth Program participants: Marvin, Seneca, Denise, Emely, Erik, Conzuelo, Kawin, and Karen. We are already feeling the effects of Climate Change; California’s drought, extreme East Coast winters, and devastating hurricanes in the South are all part of the new reality our world is facing. Things will only get worse unless we plant our trees today!

For nearly 40 years, KYCC has been preparing youth to be the thought and change leaders in their community. We have been planting trees to create a canopy of positive change in the communities we serve. If you haven’t had a chance to plant your tree yet, come grab a shovel, and dig right in.

For more information on KYCC’s many volunteer opportunities, from community beautification to afterschool tutoring, please email volunteer@kyccla.org.