Lily Heidger: Canopy’s first AmeriCorps VISTA member

By Canopy Team on August 22, 2023

In 2021 Canopy was approached to partner with Stanford, Saint Mary’s College of California (SMC), and AmeriCorps VISTA for a multi-year initiative strengthening partnerships between higher education and non-profit organizations and creating positive social change in Bay Area communities. At one of six participating nonprofits, AmeriCorps VISTA Members would serve full-time building staff capacity, collaborating with local communities, and addressing social justice issues such as environmental justice, economic insecurity, climate change, education inequity, and the digital divide.

Due to the success of Canopy’s partnership with the Stanford Future Bay Initiative (SFBI) and community partners developing a hyper-local mapping tool designed to focus canvassing and outreach efforts in North Fair Oaks, Canopy leadership felt confident embracing the opportunity to work with Stanford again.

Smiling woman in glasses with background of trees
Lily Heidger

Lily Heidger discovered the program on LinkedIn while looking for job opportunities that would neatly fill a gap year while she applied for graduate school. A May 2022 graduate from the College of Coastal Georgia with a B.S. in Environmental Science and a minor in Geology, Lily’s degree concentrated on sustainability, policy, and management, and she had just completed a remote internship with NASA helping make earth data more equitable for environmental justice communities.

A lover of outdoors and the trees whose shade under which she grew up, Lily immediately felt connected to Canopy’s work and the team members at her interview: Christie Galitsky, Canopy’s Senior Director of Programs and Arlene Nuñez García, Canopy’s community forestry coordinator in East Palo Alto, Belle Haven, and North Fair Oaks. With her stellar experience and deep love for trees, Lily was a natural choice to be be Canopy’s first AmeriCorps VISTA member, helping the organization to reach its goals while forging a path for the two future VISTAs in the role, one per each year of Canopy’s three year commitment.

Lily joined Canopy in August 2022 to lead community engagement activities that center community input and support existing neighborhood priorities; gather quantitative and qualitative data about where and what types of trees are most needed through activities like mapping, canvassing, public surveying, and focus groups; and synthesize data and findings into reports and recommendations for Canopy’s staff, board, and community stakeholders.

A majority of projects during Lily’s year with Canopy focused on data management and methodology. Working with Canopy’s tree team, Lily helped create a centralized Tree Care Dashboard, organizing and consolidating records of recently planted trees that still need care. Tree Care Coordinator Aubrey Knier collaborated with Lily and says the resulting dashboard has been a game changer for ability to track tree care needs and progress. Many Canopy staff agree: “We’ve been wanting to create a tool like this for a while, and having Lily’s support really made it possible.”

Lily poses with Christie Galitsky (left) and Bria Blitch, Sr. Tree Programs Manager.

Lily also jump started work on Canopy’s broader data methodology after the team discovered gaps and inconsistencies in past data. Once complete, this project to solidify and document clearer data guidelines will ensure future data can be aggregated and analyzed more easily—both for internal use by Canopy and as a potential data source for broader urban forest research.

Maika Horjus, Canopy’s Director of Impact, emphasizes the long-lasting benefit of these kinds of projects. “Accurate, accessible data is essential to understand our impact and how we can serve the community most effectively,” she says, “But it takes intention, coordination, and ongoing management. Lily’s work as an AmeriCorps fellow gave Canopy the capacity boost we needed to give some of these projects momentum.”

With much of her time spent crunching numbers and interpreting data, Lily particularly enjoyed the moments when she could engage with community members and put a face to the data. By manning informational tables at community events, helping Canopy staff plan and pilot family engagement activities such as “The Lorax” movie viewing parties during Arbor Week, and joining volunteers at tree planting events, Lily came to know community members better and saw the passion they have for their communities up close.

“I learned an incredible amount about community engagement and listening,” said Lily. “I will forever be inspired by the people I met and their dedication to their communities and this work.”

Arlene, Lily, and Aubrey explore Pinnacles National Park.

In September 2023, Lily is starting a joint Master’s and PhD program in Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She will also be joining the SPAR Lab, where members are finding ways to improve the wellbeing of both people and the planet by analyzing spatial patterns and data to solve a diverse set of GIScience research problems, from transportation safety to health, movement, and ecology.

When asked if Canopy’s work influenced her educational goals, Lily reflected that her time working directly with community members left an impression on her.

“My chosen program isn’t directly related to trees, but geography — especially urban — as a field encompasses all the facets of urban planning, trees, and equitable communities,” she shared. “Meeting community members at listening sessions, tree plantings, and other outreach events gives a face to the people my research work benefits.” 

Although her year of service has come to an end, Lily has expertly laid the foundation for Canopy’s second year AmeriCorps VISTA member, Oscar Rodriguez-Ortiz, to build on these community engagement and data management projects.

She’s also left an impression on Canopy. Lily’s enthusiasm, expertise, and team approach made her an indispensable and beloved member of Canopy’s team during her service. She will be greatly missed, and we look forward to seeing where her talents take her. 🍃

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