When he joined the Groundwork Lawrence Green Team as a high school freshman, Tomas Lopez says he had “no idea what environmental education was or what environmental advocacy was or conservation.” But he was drawn to the opportunities Groundwork’s youth development and environmental leadership program offered for “giving back to the community, being able to enjoy nature within your own community.”
Tomas and his family moved from Colombia to Lawrence, Massachusetts, a former industrial city about 25 miles north of Boston, when he was 10 years old. Being immersed in a variety of hands-on experiences through Green Team, such as trail building and tree planting, nurtured Tomas’ love for both nature and his new city. “Being outdoors and being able to plant trees… always being excited about working outside every day” helped him become the person he is today.
As he matured, Tomas’ work with Groundwork Lawrence deepened. After he’d been a Green Team member for three years, he asked if he could do a co-op for the organization and receive academic credit for the hands-on job experience. Following the co-op, Tomas completed a summer as a LISC AmeriCorps Volunteer Outreach Coordinator for Groundwork Lawrence, then returned after a couple of years of college as a summer Green Team youth leader. His successive responsibilities with Groundwork reinforced the notion that civic engagement, giving back, and taking pride in your community is an everyday part of life in Lawrence. “We’re introducing people from an early age to what environmentalism is … how they can participate on their own, whether if it’s through recycling, or being outside, or taking care of a tree that they planted.”
We're introducing people from an early age to what environmentalism is.
Tomas was so inspired by what he was learning and achieving through Groundwork that he urged his younger sister Juana to join the Green Team in her freshman year of high school as he had. Like Tomas, Juana flourished at Groundwork, becoming deeply involved with the organization’s urban farming and food justice work in Lawrence. Asked to describe what Groundwork Lawrence’s Green Team does and how it helps its members grow, Tomas explains that “We allow our community to be more involved within their own city.” Having experienced an environmental and civic awakening through Groundwork Lawrence, Tomas wanted to foster a similar awareness in his sister and fellow community members too.
Each April, Groundwork Lawrence organizes and hosts a citywide volunteer event in honor of Earth Day. For a densely populated New England city like Lawrence, the annual Earth Day event represents the first opportunity to tidy up the streets after the snow melts away and to celebrate the arrival of spring as a community. Green Team members recruit their fellow residents to volunteer at civic events like these, with an overarching goal of sustaining residents’ engagement for life.
“We would go door knocking, get people involved in participating on Earth Day, in the Spicket River cleanup,” Tomas recalls. He and his teammates leveraged every opportunity Groundwork could organize for Lawrence residents to “take pride of the city that they live in” because “everyone wants to be involved somehow,” he says.
At a 2015 Earth Day event and through that spring and summer, Tomas helped coordinate volunteers planting hundreds of perennials and trees at Ferrous Park, a former brownfield site that Groundwork Lawrence transformed into an urban wild and which now serves as the capstone of the Spicket River Greenway.
For Groundwork, a volunteer experience just isn’t complete-or “sticky”-without education, training, and context. To that end, Tomas and his teammates spent a lot of time on the Ferrous project “making sure that people were trained before they started planting … hosting smaller workshops … having people be introduced to this new park” they were volunteering in, “helping them understand its history.”
Groundwork cultivates ongoing stewardship and ownership of public spaces through deep volunteer engagement that is heavy on interpersonal connection and meaning. “A lot of the people volunteering were parents and kids, or kids and their grandparents,” Tomas explains. “So … these kids are going to be able to plant this maple tree … they know where it is, and know how big it is, and we hope they’ll want to come back” to look after their tree and see how their handiwork helped it take root and flourish over time.
From his own experience, Tomas knows that deeply engaged people “take pride in their city, take ownership, and want to continue being involved.” Through this model of intimate, hands-on engagement, Groundwork grows a community of lifelong environmentally minded urban residents and leaders, cultivating far more than a robust urban tree canopy. Groundwork volunteers become tree stewards who, as Tomas describes, plant trees and “then come back to water [the tree] and take care of it as it grows.” They become open space ambassadors who “introduce their colleagues or their neighbors or even their parents that might have not been there during the Earth Day event to all the work that they did.” They become city dwellers who value and protect the nature that exists right in their own backyard — who, as Tomas explains, “enjoy the foliage during the fall, and don’t have to leave their city … don’t drive two hours out into the White Mountains … because not everyone has that opportunity.”
His first-hand role in transforming the Ferrous site into quality green space for the community made a huge impression on Tomas — so much so that he testified before the Lawrence City Council at the project’s completion, advocating that the city take ownership of the park, which it ultimately did. “[The Ferrous Site is] no longer an abandoned area that’s not being used for any purposes. And just being able to nurture and see the process that it went through and how people use it and what it will continue to be used for is very amazing,” he explains.
Tomas credits his Green Team experience and subsequent involvement with Groundwork Lawrence with setting him on an academic and career path he never anticipated. “I had no idea that I was going to be … studying Environmental Biology at Salem State” or considering a career in conservation. In the summer of 2018, Tomas worked as a ranger with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation-an opportunity he learned about through Groundwork Lawrence. “Groundwork has definitely impacted my life,” he concludes—and in turn, Tomas and young environmental leaders like him are cultivating “a whole different view of the city of Lawrence.”