This year, the NJ Tree Foundation (NJTF) is taking some time to recognize the amazing people behind the work that we do. For our first spotlight, it is only fitting to feature our Executive Director and co-founder, Lisa Simms!
While it would be easy for us to list her credentials and the many prestigious awards she has received, we want to first share with you a story about Lisa that you cannot easily find with a Google search. One that helps demonstrate her dedication to our cities – and her ability to approach all situations with a smile, a good sense of humor, and a quality of work that can be respected by even the toughest critics.
As told by Lisa…
“Fall 2001: Our first community-based tree planting in Camden. I arrive that morning to meet the tree nursery delivery truck. Two men are sitting in an unmarked car on the street. I walk up to the car (yes, I know what you’re thinking: CLUELESS! And, you’re right!) The conversation goes like this:
Me: Hi! Are you here to volunteer for the tree planting?
Men: No. We’re police officers. This street is a known drug zone.
Me: Oh. Well, my name is Lisa and I’m from the NJ Tree Foundation. We’re planting 25 trees on Clinton Street with Habitat for Humanity today!
Officers: (Give each other a look and laugh). You’re planting trees in Camden? Trees? Yeah, they’ll be here tomorrow. (More laughter).
Me: Yep. It’s going to be a GREAT day! The residents are going to plant trees in front of their homes. If you want to stick around and help…?
Officers: You’re crazy, you know that? This is Camden. No one wants trees here. They’ll be gone by the morning. No one is going to help you. You’re gonna have a long day! Do you know what this city is like?
Me: You’ll be surprised. Really. If you’re here at noon, we’re serving lunch for the volunteers. Please stop by! (Tree truck arrives). Ok, I gotta go. Hope to see you at lunch!
Officers: (More laughter)
The tree planting goes very well. Every resident on the block helps to plant the 25 trees, and we are done by 11:30am. The street is transformed and already has shade! As we wrap up and have lunch, the undercover police officers walk up. One officer has something in his hand.
Me: Hi! I’m so glad you made it for lunch!
Officer: Lisa, this is amazing. This is the first time we have ever seen residents come out of their homes, let alone work together on something. We have never seen anything like this in Camden. The trees are beautiful! We bought you lottery tickets. I hope you win you so can continue to do this in Camden.”
Since then, Lisa developed a robust program that has planted over 5,000 trees in Camden since 2002. All plantings are community-based and follow the above model, where residents help plant and care for trees. She replicated that program in Newark, where nearly 2,500 trees have been planted since 2006. In addition, she created a fee-for-service branch of the organization (pun totally intended!) to offer affordable tree planting and landscaping services to NJ towns while providing jobs to ex-offenders transitioning back to society from prison. That program, Green Streets, has employed over 50 men since it’s inception in 2006.
Lisa has a degree in environmental science from Rutgers New Brunswick and 20+ years experience in the urban forestry field. She is the recipient of the Joyce Kilmer Award, the Gold Leaf Award, and the Green Community Achievement Award. The NJTF has planted over 200,000 trees across the state under her leadership. Thank you, Lisa, for all you have done and continue to do!
Lisa is pictured left (center) with the Green Streets Crew.