Dying Trees Bring New Life to Boulder Homeless

Dying Trees Bring New Life

Art imitates life, but sometimes it can save a life. Johnny has been in and out of homelessness for more than nineteen years. In many ways, he has been in isolation for even longer. But Johnny’s story doesn’t end there. In fact, he’s finding a new start through art.

"To be honest, this is the first time I've felt like part of a community," says Johnny, a formerly homeless Boulder resident.

“To be honest, this is the first time I’ve felt like part of a community,” says Johnny, a formerly homeless Boulder resident.

Woodworking has been a passion of Johnny’s since his grandfather taught him over thirty years ago. The dedication and labor of love is what attracts him to this kind of craftsmanship. However, the opportunity to work with sanding machines, table saws, and even a 3D printer would not have been possible with the invasion of a deadly species. 

The Emerald Ash Borer Beetle is a highly destructive, non-native insect that is responsible for the death of millions of ash trees nationwide. The penny-sized insect burrows into the the trees to lay eggs and once the larvae is hatched, the ash tree will die within four years of infection.

The species was first confirmed in Colorado in 2013 and in this epidemic, the City of Boulder is ground zero. To eliminate the spread of EAB throughout the state, the Urban Forestry Division has placed a quarantine on transported wood outside of Boulder city limits. With over seventy-three thousand trees infected this rate of disposal has overwhelmed Boulder landfills. To reduce the overwhelming amount of trees filling disposal centers, a local program is working toward re-utilization of the damaged wood.

TreeOpp is a community project that transforms infected EAB wood into art. Coasters, cutting boards, benches, and even delicate ornaments are all produced in the workshop. The program not only salvages trees, but saves lives. The crew members in the workshop are formerly incarcerated or homeless residents of Boulder County. They are participants in the Ready-to-Work program, a transitional housing and employment plan that aims to eliminate recidivism in the community.

“In my estimation it’s helping people get a better foot forward,” says Johnny.

Crew members spend three months in the workshop working with Creative Technologist and Tree Opp instructor Janet Hollingsworth. She initially spearheaded the program to raise awareness about the local environment, but found the opportunity to bridge the gap between two social problems: sustainability and job opportunity.

“A tree that came down in boulder county has been transformed in as many ways as you can conceive and has transformed lives in doing so,” says Janet Hollingsworth.

“A tree that came down in boulder county has been transformed in as many ways as you can conceive and has transformed lives in doing so,” says Janet Hollingsworth.

The workshop not only teaches transferable job skills, but gives members the self confidence to branch out in the community. Products from the workshop are sold at the Boulder Farmer’s Market as an additional way to connect to local industry. It seems true for trees and people that when we are given the opportunity to grow we can create beauty in the world.

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