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Giving Free Trees to Kids

Fostering Feelings of Magic, Wonder, and Environmental Responsibility in the Hearts of Children Everywhere

Sustainability and environmental protection have gained immense prominence today. Whether we tune into the news or scroll through social media, we see videos talking about the importance of reusing, recycling, or taking other steps to protect our environment. As adults, most of us understand the profound impact that even the smallest actions can have, especially when multiplied across a large number of people. Yet, what about our little ones who are the future? How can we inspire them to make a positive impact while fostering a love for nature and our planet?

Vikas Narula found an answer to this question many years ago: give children trees to plant – thousands and thousands of them – for free, every Earth Day.

That's been the mission of his non-profit organization, Neighborhood Forest, since it was founded in Minneapolis in 2010. The organization gives free trees to any school, library or youth group that expresses interest. Parents sign up to receive a free tree for their child ahead of Earth Day, and then the trees are distributed through the child's educational institution or group during Earth Week (April 22-30) for planting with their families.

"We want to give every child the chance to plant their very own tree, beautify our neighborhoods, reduce our carbon footprint, and cultivate a sense of magic, wonder, and love for the planet," Vikas says.

Neighborhood Forest's impact has been growing steadily. This year alone, they gave away over 42,000 trees, nearly three times the amount distributed just two years ago. However, Vikas is not content with thousands; he dreams of reaching millions of children, not just in North America but across the globe.

Vikas' passion for trees dates back to his college years at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. During this time, he started an environmental club on campus, which adopted a free tree program pioneered by David Kidd in Ohio. 

"We raised money and gave thousands of seedlings to children across Southeast Iowa,” Vikas says. “It was very rewarding and left a lasting impression on me.”
 
But the program wouldn't continue for long. Soon after, Vikas graduated, got a job with a tech company and eventually moved to Minneapolis. 

The next fifteen years were devoted to the corporate world and Vikas' tree project dreams slowly faded away. That is until one fateful day when he became ill and ended up bedridden for a month. Sick in bed, staring at the ceiling, he had a lot of time to reflect on his life and career.

"I realized I wanted more meaning and purpose in my life,” he says. “My heart and mind kept coming back to the trees, the kids and the project that I did in college. I knew I had to start it again. So while I was sick in bed, I called up Lake Harriet Lower School (where my son attended) and a couple of other schools, and like that Neighborhood Forest was born.”

Starting with 400 children in four Minneapolis schools in its first year, the organization has now expanded to serve 1,500 schools, libraries and youth groups, engaging over 500,000 families and planting over 130,000 trees across 48 US states and Canada.

“We have recently witnessed a surge in interest from a diverse range of institutions," Clara Radloff, Head of Community Engagement at Neighborhood Forest, says. "In addition to schools and libraries, youth groups like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have joined the program, along with park and recreation groups, centers for adults with disabilities, a reptile center, a soccer club, a garden club, and even college sororities that work with children. The demand for trees is remarkable, with nearly 200 schools and libraries already on the waitlist for next year.”

The success of the tree program relies on individual donations and corporate sponsorships. Companies such as Winnebago, US Bank, AMD, 3M, Deluxe Corporation, Lakewinds Food Co-op, and UPS have played vital roles in scaling up the organization's operations. UPS, in particular, has provided valuable shipping and logistics expertise to ensure the distribution of thousands of trees across North America.

To further support the program and provide teaching content centered around trees, Neighborhood Forest has partnered with an education company. They have developed supplements such as a board game, STEM curriculum, and a children's book to enhance the learning experience for participants in the free tree program.

While Neighborhood Forest has faced challenges and moments of doubt, Vikas credits his wife, Priya, for her unwavering support. He believes, like she does, that every member of the family has played a crucial role in bringing the program to the place it is today.

"It has truly been a family affair," Priya says. "Vikas initially planted the seed, and Vivek, his brother, nurtured it for six years. Our youngest son, Ishaan, participated in our videos, while our eldest son, Nayan, played a vital role in securing essential sponsors like UPS. Our mother provided invaluable support by contributing extra funding for trees. And even our beloved dog, Wolfee, played a part. Each one of us has made a unique contribution."

One of the most rewarding aspects of the program for Vikas is the ever-growing library of then and now photos he receives from parents of children growing up with their trees. 

"It's a magic and beauty that everyone can witness," he says. "Trees are the gift that keeps on giving, and they get more beautiful with time. We are inspired to give something to kids that will last for generations.”

To register for the program, or to donate and contribute to planting trees through the hands of children, visit www.neighborhoodforest.org for more information.

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