Fourth graders become foresters

In the butterfly garden at Wescott Elementary School near Chicago, fourth graders cheered as they planted a 3-foot-tall tree for Arbor Day, gladly crawling on their knees to press dirt around the roots and make it secure.

The Norway spruce wasn’t just any tree. Just like the saplings that the students were receiving that day, this tree was given to a Wescott Elementary School fourth grader by the Glenview Lions three years earlier. It was part of the Fourth Grade Foresters program, and like the kids, the tree had grown.

Since 2013, 362 Lions clubs in 45 U.S. states have given 142,536 little trees to fourth graders, says Debra Ersch, the founder and president of the Nebraska program. For the last six years the Glenview Lions have proudly accounted each year for about 150 of those trees being distributed to two schools, and in Warrenville, Illinois, the Warrenville Lions every year give out about 225 trees.

Glenview’s past president Terrence Dooley says the program is a perfect fit for a service project.

Not only does it give Lions an opportunity to explain service to children, but, says Dooley, “It teaches kids about Arbor Day and helps them realize what’s happening with the environment and the importance of planting trees.”

The tree planted at Wescott this year was donated by Tracey and David Becker and their daughter, Molly, of Northbrook. They cared for it since Molly brought it home from school on Arbor Day in 2016, keeping the little tree in a pot on the kitchen countertop at first, then moving it outside to a bigger pot, and eventually an even bigger one as it grew. Knowing the tree would eventually be too big for their yard, the Beckers gave it back to the school.

Ersch says the Norway spruce was particularly chosen for the Chicago area just as other appropriate species are chosen for other areas of the country by state foresters. The trees are provided by regional nurseries and packaged by the disabled.

The organization hopes to revitalize the celebration of Arbor Day in the schools, having distributed more than 750,000 saplings to fourth graders in more than 7,000 schools across the U.S. since 2006. Fourth graders were chosen to become honorary foresters because “a fourth grader can begin to understand stewardship,” explains Ersch. “Lions can make a tremendous impact and teach kids at an early age to be stewards of their communities.”

At Wescott, Dooley handed small trees to the students while answering their questions.

“Will it grow?” a young girl asked him.

“It will if you take care of it,” he said.