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Thanks to a group of families from the I Rise-Family Empowerment Program, a Detroit neighborhood now has several new trees to enjoy, and the families themselves have the satisfaction of making the community a more pleasant place to be.

The community service project happened because the families who participate in the program wanted to meet other families at the four branches that offer it (Boll, Downriver, Farmington and Lakeshore), and also wanted to model the importance of community service to their kids.

The I Rise – Family Empowerment Program is a grant-funded program through the United Way for Southeastern Michigan that works with parents who have children in YMCA childcare programs and whose incomes fall between 100 and 200% of the poverty level. The goal of the program is to help families achieve career, financial and life goals in an effort to move well beyond the “gap.” Families participate in career and life coaching, educational/motivational forums and receive childcare financial assistance in striving towards their goals.

“They told us they would love for their kids to see that even though they have these struggles, they can still give back to their community,” says Matthew Cunningham, coordinator of the I Rise-Family Empowerment Program.

He and Cindy Perri, the life coach for the program, looked for a program that could accommodate both children and adults and found the community tree planting opportunity through Greening of Detroit. The Cody-Rouge neighborhood, where they planted trees, is near two Y programs as well, the Detroit Leadership Academy and the Detroit Swims site at Cody High School.

“I loved Greening of Detroit. The citizen foresters, Taylor and Nick, who guided us were awesome with the children,” Cindy says. “Several of our parents have expressed an interest with working with Greening of Detroit on their own because of this experience. It was really heart-warming to connect with a neighbor in that neighborhood. She came out to tell us how much the elderly person living there was going to appreciate that.”

The kids especially enjoyed the planting — as Matthew pointed out, even the littlest ones could use their small feet to their advantage in tamping down the soil around the trees. One mother said, “When we saw the citizen foresters giving us a demonstration of planting the tree I thought ‘What am I getting myself into?’ but after planting a couple of trees I was so glad we came out to do this. I was able to bond with another one of our parents in the program.”

Once they had planted the trees, the families came back to the Detroit Leadership Academy, where they had a picnic. After they ate, the kids played on the playground while the adults did some ice-breaking activities and got to know each other.

The United Way of Southeastern Michigan, which funds the program, includes community involvement as part of a matrix to gauge how people in need are faring. Being able to engage with their community and contribute reflects a sense of confidence and self-worth that will only help these families as they move along the path to their goals.

“It felt so good to FINALLY be able to give back,” one father in the program said.