Volunteer Spotlight: Gunn Green Team

By Canopy Team on February 22, 2022

Gunn Green Team members Willa and Katie with Canopy staff member Gabrielle Trudeau.

You could say it began in eighth grade with the Girl Scouts’ Silver Award. That’s when Katie Rueff and Willa Bednarz teamed up with Canopy on a tree planting project. The Silver Award required them to find an issue they care about, explore their community and think of how that issue affects the community, then develop a project that can lead to lasting change. The two middle-schoolers did just that, pitching in on tree plantings and walking their neighborhood streets with flyers encouraging their neighbors to join them.

Planting trees is a really beautiful experience. It’s easy to see the fruit of your efforts, and we always have fun working together.

Katie Rueff

Katie and Willa’s voluntarism and interest in trees actually took root much earlier than middle school. The teenagers, now juniors at Gunn High School, remember their early appreciation for nature, their concerns about the climate, and the satisfaction of making a difference by planting trees.

“I remember my very first time, I was in second grade and we planted trees at my elementary school and drank hot chocolate,” laughs Willa. These days, she enjoys walking her dog past trees that she helped plant at her old preschool.

Willa and Katie have continued to volunteer with Canopy since their eighth-grade project. As juniors at Gunn High School, they lead their school’s environmental club, the Gunn Green Team, and serve as enthusiastic volunteer recruiters for Canopy tree plantings.

“Planting trees is a really beautiful experience,” says Katie. “It’s easy to see the fruit of your efforts, and we always have fun working together” — even during the most challenging plantings, like having to dig around a concrete block. “Afterwards, we like to name the trees.”

Indira Selvakumaraswamy, Canopy’s volunteer engagement manager, worked with Katie and Willa during the pandemic to pilot small weekday “popcorn” tree plantings. Small groups of three to five high schoolers from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools met after school on Wednesdays to plant trees. “We could only carry off the popcorn plantings thanks to Katie and Willa’s enthusiasm and availability,” Indira says.

Willa and Katie plant a residential tree in Palo Alto.

The pandemic made pitching the volunteer opportunity to their peers much easier. High schoolers were taking classes online at home and craved getting together with others. “It was so tiring to be on the computer all day,” remembers Willa. “It was nice to have a reason to be outside.” Agrees Katie, “Everyone was home and really wanted a reason to get out.”

Katie and Willa grew their Canopy involvement in 2021 when they signed up to help with the Great Oak Count, the organization’s ambitious effort in which pairs of volunteers walk the streets and parks of Palo Alto, working to map and document all of the city’s native oak trees. “They were my highest surveyors this year, documenting 33 trees,” Indira says. This past fall, the teens also signed up for Canopy’s Community Forestry School, a program that includes online classes about trees with first-hand field experiences planting and maintaining trees. “I love how Willa and Katie have been willing to try different things,” Indira says. “It’s very inspiring.”

Willa says the Canopy programs have taught her how much she didn’t know about trees. “I’ve learned about native species, about what kinds of trees do well in certain places, and about the disparity in tree cover between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto,” she says.

Over the years, Katie has appreciated meeting other volunteers at Canopy events, from teachers to retirees to community activists. “It’s unifying. You meet people from all walks of life who just want to make the community better.”

The larger impact of their tree planting isn’t lost on either teen. They know that their generation is inheriting the massive challenges of climate change. They both plan to pursue college studies related to environmental work.

Katie says she doesn’t worry about climate change the way some people do. “I’m already in the weeds. I have the luxury of knowing I have the power to help fight it,” she says. “Canopy serves as a really easy way to help bridge the gap, it helps you take the first steps to pitching in without it feeling too daunting.”

Gunn Green Team students with planting leaders and Teen Urban Foresters at a Palo Alto popcorn planting in 2021.

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