Lee Vining students give back, plant a tree—make that lots of trees

A teacher, a friend, a parent, a computer, a nursery, a principal, three special volunteers, and a group of motivated students: Do you think this combination could end in five new trees planted at a school? If your answer was yes, you were right.

It all started a few months ago when a Lee Vining Elementary school teacher, Ms. Silliker, assigned the fifth- and sixth-grade class a persuasive writing challenge. Ms. Silliker told us to brainstorm ideas for things we could change at our school and then we would write persuasive essays about the ideas to our principal, Mr. Yost.

As students discussed topics together, a friend, Hope Gilly, suggested the idea of planting trees to me. I loved the idea because I could so well remember those hot sticky days on the playground with only a couple of trees! So I started planning and writing my essay right away. A couple weeks later, almost everything (the pictures, the research, the handwritten essay) was set up. The main question was, “How do we actually get the trees we want to plant?” My mom, Sarah Taylor, suggested I send an email to a few local nurseries. My dad, Geoff McQuilkin, proposed one of the nurseries to be Chalfant Big Trees. I sent out the email that night.

The next morning, I had big news. Chalfant Big Trees had offered to donate trees to us. I couldn’t believe that in that short of time, less than 12 hours, someone had already replied!

Her name was Debbie Blair and she wrote, “We would love to donate to your school. We have a lot of choices for you to pick from. Maybe you and your principal could come see us and pick your own trees for the playground. Call me and set up an appointment so that I am sure to be there. Great idea!” When I got that email, I felt like I could fly! I was sure my essay would persuade Mr. Yost now. I had never realized a simple school assignment might become something as big as this.

Three drafts, 85 student signatures, and 28 emails later, almost everything was ready. Most of the students in our school had volunteered to help plant the trees when they signed my letter to Mr. Yost. My principal had approved the essay idea. Debbie and I had worked out all the details: we had the spots chosen, the trees chosen, the delivery date chosen, and some excited volunteers ready for it to happen.

On Monday, May 14, Steve Blair (Debbie’s husband) arrived with the Patmore Ash, Purple Ash, and the three Quaking Aspens. Our class split into groups and joined up with volunteers to begin digging the holes. The work was hard and we got hot, but we all knew it would be worth it for the shade of those trees that would soon be growing on our playground. Most of the classes came out and joined us to watch and help, too.

Soon, water gushed out of the hose in my hand into one of the holes we had just finished digging. After we had finished the fun work of planting the two ashes, we moved on to the aspens. In no time at all, about six of us gripped the smooth white trunk of an aspen and placed it carefully into the hole while other kids pushed in dirt. The kindergarteners came out to watch us plant our last tree. They enthusiastically shoveled in dirt and helped us give the tree bucketfuls of water. I grinned as I watched the long line of kids on the playground passing down buckets of water for the trees.

With the last tree planted, it was time for all the thank yous and pictures. My heart lifted higher and higher with each snap of a camera and each smile lighting up another kid’s face. But I felt I couldn’t be any happier when each of the kindergartners skipped over to me to give me a big hug.

Covered by kindergartners, I thought: thank you Ms. Silliker, Hope, Mom, Dad, Mr. Yost, Chalfant Big Trees, Debbie, Steve, Gina, the Mono Lake Committee, Santiago, Jess, Terry, and all of the students at Lee Vining Elementary School. Thanks for helping make our school prettier, the air cleaner, and for helping the whole school understand more about teamwork and being good to the earth. Thank you so, so much—we couldn’t have done it without you.