ï»¿The small seedlings VIkas planted in 1993 (left) had grown to massive shade trees by 2013.
A Minneapolis-based charitable organization, Neighborhood Forest, is helping children reconnect with the natural world by giving away free trees every Earth Day. Started in 2010 by former Fairfielder Vikas Narula, Neighborhood Forest has reached over 40,000 kids throughout the Midwest and Canada.
As a college student in Fairfield, Vikas started O.N.E., the Organization for a New Earth, which provided free trees to area schools on Earth Day. In 1993, he and fellow student Belinda Hoole created the now-iconic EcoJam, an eco-conscious fashion show, to raise money for O.N.E.’s free tree program. EcoJam has continued to be an inspiring artistic showcase for local talent, but the free tree program died out. After graduating, Vikas moved to Minneapolis, got married, and got caught up in the corporate rat race.
In 2009, Vikas caught a nasty virus that forced him to take a month of bed rest. He faced the fact that he hated his job and missed the joy he’d experienced handing out free trees as a college student. Encouraged by his wife to reconnect with his dreams, he started Neighborhood Forest.
“Planting small trees and watching them grow to maturity has been one of the most gratifying and inspiring things I have done in my life,” says Vikas. “I want children—as many as possible—to experience this wonder of planting and watching trees grow. I love trees, and the mission of Neighborhood Forest is to give kids an opportunity to plant them every Earth Day.”
Neighborhood Forest has three main goals: to give children a way to connect with the Earth, to help beautify our neighborhoods, and to enable families to make a dent in their carbon footprints. Since 2010, Neighborhood Forest has helped school-children plant over 10,000 trees across six states, including Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, as well as Ontario, Canada. This spring, they are looking to match that number and expand into Ohio, the Carolinas, and possibly even Panama.
“This started back in Iowa 20 years ago,” Vikas says. “It was reborn in Minnesota. We brought it back to Iowa with greater enthusiasm and excitement. We’re spreading across Iowa. If there’s a school that wants to be a part of it, sign up on our website. We hope to keep growing and spreading, spreading the joy.“
Fairfielder Jami Johnson remembers getting a tree from Vikas in 1993, while she was in the fourth grade. Her tree thrived. She grew up to be passionate about fashion and the environment. When she took over organizing the EcoJam a few years ago, she contacted Vikas to learn more about its history. She invited Vikas and Belinda to open EcoJam 2014, where they reintroduced the free tree program. Neighborhood Forest handed out trees to every school in Fairfield on Earth Day that year, and continues to do so. Free trees have also been available in Sioux Center, Muscatine, Osceola, and other towns throughout the state.
“It’s not just a hobby anymore,” says Vikas. “ It gives me joy, it gives me a feeling of meaning and purpose getting a child to feel connected with nature.”
His older brother, Vivek, recently moved to Minneapolis from Canada and now works full time as the Director of Neighborhood Forest. “I help spread the word about our mission to new sponsors and new communities,” Vivek says, “so we can give the wonder and joy of planting trees to as many schoolchildren as possible.”
As part of his ocial media campaign, Vivek has created a number of charming YouTube videos starring one of Vikas’s sons, nine-year-old Ishaan. Neighborhood Forest also keeps in touch with children who’ve received trees and tracks their stories as they and their trees mature. To get more information about the free tree program, or to become a sponsor, visit neighborhoodforest.org.