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Planting Trees Helps Ex-Felons Grow

Jose Salazar was in a difficult spot.  He was fresh out of jail and found the opportunities for those who spent time behind bars incredibly limited and very unfulfilling. He didn’t want to be like others who end up homeless or unable to keep up with the relentless demands of rent and bills in this challenging economy.  Jose decided to join the Treeforce Program, designed to help ex-felons get back on their feet and help make the transition back into society go smoother.

“I was in the Hazelbrook Sober Living facility and they told me about the second chance center, and how they help people get back on their feet,” Salazar said. “A dream of mine is to own a ranch and work as my own boss, so when I told them that the forestry program came up, they said I would be a good candidate.”

One of the main goals of the Treeforce Program and many other workforce development programs is to reduce the rate of recidivism among ex-felons. According to the Center on Media Crime and Justice at John Jay University “Colorado’s overall recidivism rate — defined by the Department of Corrections as returning to prison within three years — is 50 percent, one of the worst in the country.” 

“I realized my cycle is, you know, I’ll get out of jail and then I’ll go straight for the first job that will hire me right away, which will be like construction or a at a restaurant or something, I’ll work for three or six months and I’ll either walk off or get fired because it’s a shitty job,” Salazar said. “This starts like a chain reaction of homelessness, and you know relapse and start selling drugs or trying to make ends meet in another way.”          

The Treeforce program is run by The Park People of Denver, a 501 nonprofit looking to improve and maintain local parks and plant trees all over Denver. The Park People are all about getting the community involved in the planting process and showing community members how parks and trees can positively impact the hearts and minds of community members as well.

Due to a shortage of workers that grow and care for parks, or “urban forests,” The Park People decided to create the Treeforce Program. It just launched in 2022. This workforce development program aims to help justice involved participants get back into the workforce, and explore possible careers in forestry and tree care.

“For this pilot program, we planted and steward around 100 trees in the Denver West Side neighborhood,” said Madeleine Hooker, the Workforce Development Manager for the Treeforce Program. “And then we worked with a number of training and employees in the tree care sector across Denver so our participants were able to be trained by Denver Parks and rec and their forestry department.”

The Parks Program works in collaboration with American Forests, a nationwide organization that does workforce development programs. The program is technically a pre-apprenticeship tied with an arborist program that is run out of Front Range Community College. The program runs for eight weeks and not only gives participants experience in urban forestry but also the opportunities to work on their resumes and learn valuable skills in a classroom setting. 

“Our participants came into the program and had never really had a long term place of employment.  For some of them this was their first type of job experience, ” Hooker said. “So just having that experience, day in day out of being expected to show up on time was a good routine for the participants to get into.”

Hooker and the Treeforce Program found that the participants took to the work really well and were happy to see the positive experience the eight weeks were for a group members.

“One of the main outcomes of the program that I wasn’t anticipating was the team camaraderie that was built. We ended up graduating five participants, and all five of them really developed this strong bond by the last week and were really holding each other accountable,” Hooker said. “They had this really supportive community of friends that were really like lifelong friends for one another, and that was really, really cool to see.”

Salazar also found his experience in the Treeforce Program to be a positive experience. He met alot of different people while in the program and was able to talk to business owners, professors, and various residents around the Denver area. 

“I got to speak with the parks and recreation people and see what they have to deal with and know that they fight like kind of the same struggle that we do out here,” Salazar said. “Energy and transportation takes priority over anything natural or environmental.”

Salazar has plans now to take the next steps in his life.  He has an uncle who has been doing arborist work for about a year and needs help. He and his uncle are talking about expanding and the business and making him a co-owner. Along with his hopes of one day owning a ranch and being his own boss, Salazar also has many other ideas for his future. 

“I know I want to help the Native American community,” Salazar said. “I’ve been involved with them, and maybe I can help them hold their ceremonies or use that land to repopulate the bison.”      

To learn more about the Treeforce program visit The Parks People website.  

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