To plant life where life has been taken — that is the mantra behind the Healing Roots program.
Healing Roots was started by Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, a nonprofit organization based in Stockton, California. Last year, Fathers & Families received a $50,000 grant from Cal Fire’s Urban and Community Forestry program, which allowed the organization to start planting trees in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
The grant — funded through California’s climate and clean energy laws — gives the organization the opportunity to plant over 200 trees in disadvantaged communities, primarily South Stockton. Fathers & Families holds different events to do mass plantings, the latest being LOVE Stockton where 16 trees were planted in the community.
But Fathers & Families saw the grant for planting trees as an opportunity to do more than reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Stockton is a community plagued with violence, and that often results in the loss of life.
“The idea behind Healing Roots is we are planting life where life has been taken,” said Andre Belion, a case manager and resource specialist for Fathers & Families. “The family member can cultivate this tree just like life, at one point, was being cultivated. It gives them a sense of belonging. It gives them a sense of healing, which is where we get Healing Roots.”
Healing Roots got its start in January 2018 and is being utilized by the community as a way to heal from the loss of life due to traumatic incidents.
“There is not enough healing and too much violence,” Belion said. “Vulnerable families and disadvantaged communities don’t really receive healing on this type of level.
“Our idea is to bridge that with hope to make people at ease with the situation that they’ve gone through. There’s not a lot of help for disadvantaged and low-income communities, and we offer them that, free of charge, with Healing Roots.”
Mary August, a mother of four who lost one of her sons to gun violence, has taken advantage of the healing aspect the program provides.
On March 6, 2018, Raymon August’s life was cut short as he was killed in a shooting just a couple blocks from where he lived.
Mary described her 41-year-old son as a big sports fanatic who had so much love to give.
“He was never a violent person,” Mary said. “He was always telling me to pray. He was the one that didn’t want any violence. He told me of one incident where one of his friends was about to do something, and he begged him not to do it. He was a good man. It shouldn’t have happened.”
Mary heard about the Healing Roots program through Fathers & Families, and in September, she and her family planted their tree to commemorate Raymon and his life.
A family participating in the program selects the tree they want to plant and the location where they want to plant it, and the organization will conduct a tree planting ceremony. The organization digs the hole, but the family physically puts the tree into the ground, covers its roots with dirt and waters it.
Mary recalled how beautiful the ceremony was, and remembered how it made her feel.
“It made me feel a lot better to know that people care,” Mary said. “It took away a lot of anger that I was feeling. It made me feel that we’re not in this alone. We had people praying for our well-being, praying for us to get better. For us to heal.”
The August family is just one of many who have benefited from planting trees with help from Healing Roots. Since the start of the program back in January, 2018, Fathers & Families has planted close to 80 trees.
Healing Roots doesn’t just help heal families. By planting trees, it also helps heal the planet by reducing greenhouse gases — and in a city like Stockton that is notorious for its unhealthy air, this is a big deal.
Belion said Stockton has three ZIP codes in the Top 10 list for the most polluted cities in the state of California – 95202, 95203 and 95206.
“The impact we’re making on the environment by planting trees is vital to our survival,” Belion said. “Thirty-two percent of youth ages 1-17 in San Joaquin County have been diagnosed with asthma, whereas only 14.4 percent are diagnosed with asthma in the state. We doubled the entire state’s average, so I can’t emphasize enough how vital planting these trees are.
“They clean the air, they provide food, they provide shade, they provide a healing sense,” he continued. “There are 22 benefits to trees, and I think the main thing that’s not emphasized enough is trees reduce violence. Just by being in your community, just by being around a tree, that holistic feel reduces violence.”
In a city where the community is split in two — the north and south side — that data does not come as a surprise to Belion. “There’s no open green spaces [in the south side]. There’s no trees. There’s no clean water. But when you go up north, they have all the trees. They have all the open parks and green spaces and they’re not being harassed by the police. There’s a sense of safety out north.”
“There’s a billboard that shows life expectancy rates for living in those ZIP codes,” he continued, talking about the three Stockton ZIP codes listed as the most polluted in California. “Basically, your life is shortened by 20 years because you come from the ZIP code that has been left for dead. The streets are barren.”
With this information in mind, Fathers & Families is planting trees in those three ZIP codes specifically. Belion hopes that by planting trees here, Stockton will see a decrease in pollution and violence in these communities, as they continue bringing a sense of comfort to the families dealing with loss.
“Once families see the care that goes into the planting of the tree, the cultivating of the tree, the watering of the tree and the maintenance of the tree, it gives them a sense that their loved one is still with them,” Belion said.
Mary and her family agree.
“It makes you look forward to seeing it grow,” Mary said. “Ours is a lime tree and Raymon liked Patron. My daughter said we can go to the tree, get a lime, have us a glass of Patron and drink it with Ray.”
The August family is still looking for answers about the murder of their beloved Raymon, but Mary appreciates everything that Fathers & Families has done and is doing for them.
“The part that’s making me feel better is the love that I see coming from this organization and the tree,” Mary said. “Hopefully I can continue to work with Fathers & Families and get others feeling the way that I’m feeling now. Without them, I don’t know what I would do.”