Since his childhood in East Palo Alto, Uriel Hernandez has noticed significant change in his neighborhood's greenery -- mostly thanks to his own work.
The seeds of that change were planted when Hernandez attended Menlo-Atherton High School. As a student, Hernandez observed that Atherton's landscape included more greenery, shade and nature than his hometown. Then, he spent four years at Middlebury College in Vermont, pursuing a degree in architecture and history. While there, he experienced an ecosystem entirely different from that of the Bay Area.
"I got to walk around with all these beautiful trees, and I didn't necessarily realize it then, but something that affected me in college was the difference that having trees around you makes," Hernandez said.
Hernandez wondered what he could do about this "disconnect" between nature and developed areas. He wanted to change the notion of "nature as a destination" that he says exists here in the Bay Area.
The 24-year-old began volunteering with the Palo Alto nonprofit Canopy in 2014 because he saw that it was "engaging the new generation of kids" at the schools that he had attended only a few years before. Then, when the nonprofit received a grant through CAL FIRE in 2015, he filled in a temporary full-time position at Canopy. That evolved into his current position, as the community forestry coordinator, in which Hernandez educates local volunteers on how to preserve and expand East Palo Alto’s urban forest.
"I try to foster a sense of stewardship, especially as a Bay Area native," Hernandez noted.
The Bay Nature Institute, an organization that celebrates the Bay Area's natural beauty, recognized Hernandez's leadership skills and hands-on work at Canopy and is awarding him with the 2017 Youth Engagement Award on March 26. Each year, Bay Nature Institute honors individuals who have done significant work to protect the local ecosystems. Awards are divided into three categories: Conservation Action, Environmental Education and Youth Engagement. The Youth Engagement Award goes to someone 25 years or younger who is involved in conservation activities.
Hernandez was nominated by the executive director of Canopy, according to Bay Nature's executive director and publisher, David Loeb.
"The combination of his work to create a healthier and more natural environment in East Palo Alto and his leadership skills and ability to mobilize communities to support that work make him deserving of this award," Loeb said of Hernandez.
Hernandez plans to plant 500 trees in East Palo Alto by 2020 through his initiative, Branching Out. So far Canopy and their volunteers have planted over 2,000 trees across the city. These trees provide a number of benefits for the community including cleaner air, reduced greenhouse gases, improved water quality, as well as some economic and social benefits.
Programs and volunteer events at Canopy include an education component in order to teach community members about what it means to plant a tree and the value of stewardship.
"Everyone loves the glory of planting a tree, but a lot of people don't want to do the dirty work," said Hernandez. "So whenever we have volunteer days I try to get people to see the value in that."
"It's in caring for a tree that you make the act of planting it meaningful," said Hernandez when reflecting on the 20-year process of caring for trees.
Branching Out provides free trees to residents in order to get them more involved in their own community. Hernandez hopes to teach people how to select the right trees for the right place. The program acts as a community resource in a city that has other pressing issues.
"We do a lot of work in East Palo Alto because the city itself can't handle it. So that is when Canopy steps in to speak for the trees and do that work," Hernandez explained.
A lot of Hernandez"s program aims to get kids excited about trees and nature. The Branching Out and Teen Urban Foresters programs try to empower youth to feel free to make the changes they want to see in society. Hernandez personally relates to this idea as he himself chose to work toward bettering his home community and working in a field he is passionate about.
The programs hope to encourage repeat volunteers and to inspire people to actively make changes in their community.
"I try to hammer home to these kids the impact trees and nature have on the community as well as on them as individuals," Hernandez said, adding that as the current federal administration changes it is crucial to take care of the things that are important to the community, on a grassroots level.
As East Palo Alto is becoming more and more developed, Hernandez hopes that people "keep the ecosystem in mind."
The Bay Area housing issues generates challenges for establishing a healthier urban forest. Cities like East Palo Alto are changing quickly, and some developers don't take the time to make the right decisions in terms of landscaping, he said.
Hernandez will be honored on Sunday, March 26, in San Francisco at Bay Nature's Annual Local Hero Awards Dinner.