Volunteers put green thumbs to work keeping city's trees healthy

Though Betsy  Elsaesser works as a physical therapist, she often gets requests for help that have nothing to do with sprains and strains.

"I get calls from neighbors asking, "Can you come over to look at my tree?" says Elsaesser, who lives in Logan Square.

That's because Elsaesser is a certified treekeeper, a member of a volunteer corps of arborists who help maintain Chicago's 4 million trees. They plant new trees, and mulch and prune young ones. Their efforts keep the city's green canopy healthy, which reduces air conditioning costs, tames winter heating bills, and increases property value.
Treekeepers must complete a rigorous eight-week course run by Openlands, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving  public open space in northeastern Illinois.

After volunteers pass a final exam and a hands-on test they can begin working on projects across the city.

One of the most memorable ones for Elsaesser was planting a memorial tree in the neighborhood where a young girl was shot. Treekeepers were on hand to help the family plant the tree properly.

"I can do something with my own two hands and make a contribution," says Elsaesser. "It's taught me to be an environmentalist in my own neighborhood."

Elsaesser, who joined in 1993, was tired of the constant person-to-person contact involved in working as a physical therapist, and was looking for a less social activity. But now, she laughs as she recalls learning that volunteering as a treekeeper is all about talking to people and sharing knowledge with others.

Jim DeHorn  was driving in his car after a long day's work as a handyman in 1993 when he first heard about the program on public radio. He joined thinking he could help people since he believed he knew a lot about trees.

"After 20 minutes into the course, I realized I knew nothing. It was kind of a revelation," says DeHorn.

He learned a wealth of information about trees, including the fact that they don't grow straight down, but rather outward. The roots of the trees need to stay close to the upper levels of the surface so they have enough oxygen to survive.

Throughout the years, DeHorn has worked on hundreds of projects in a variety of neighborhoods, which has helped him learn more about Chicago.

One of DeHorn's favorite projects was overseeing the planting of several hundred trees at Lathrop Home Public Housing building in 1994. It was a two-month process that included 30 volunteers. "It was my first big supervisory role," says DeHorn.

Today, DeHorn works as Openlands' recruiter and organizer.

Special education teacher Julie Rose first heard about the TreeKeeper program when someone handed her a brochure at school 10 years ago.

She says the classes help her teach students about her school's garden.

"I learned everything. It was a comprehensive class where we learned about different areas--the practical and the subtle," she says.