Thanks to a ‘great outpouring of support,’ JoCo sports more than 200 new trees

·3 min read

A service project masterminded by two Shawnee Mission South students has resulted in new trees planted in eight Johnson County cities, as well as at 37 school district buildings. Fittingly, the project took place between Earth Day and Arbor Day.

Eighteen-year-old seniors Chase Horner and Harley Witbrod were brainstorming ideas for a National Honor Society volunteer project, when they asked random people in a local park what kind of project they would financially support. The overwhelming answer? One with an environmental focus.

The two decided to do their tree-planting project last year, but the pandemic forced them to push it back to this spring. Waiting a year wasn’t all bad — the extra time allowed them to get enough money and volunteer support to plant 223 trees — 173 more than the 50 trees originally in their plan.

Chase and Harley contacted various Shawnee Mission schools as well as local cities to see who would want trees, what kind they wanted and where they needed the trees planted. Harley said keeping the information in a spreadsheet was key in keeping himself organized.

“It’s probably been one of the most educational experiences of my life. It’s taught both Chase and I logistical and long-term planning skills, as well as how to deal with a budget and real world, real-time communication,” Harley said.

To find the 25 different types of trees — which included the red sunset maple, swamp white oak and autumn brilliance serviceberry — they turned to the Heartland Tree Alliance, which steered them toward the Forrest Keeling Nursery in the St. Louis area. Local nurseries didn’t have all the different varieties they needed.

After the initial research and communication with the various sites, the focus shifted to trying to figure out how many trees each truck could carry, finding drivers and getting the locations set. Harley estimated he and Chase have spent nearly 500 hours combined trying to make this project a reality. They also got support from NHS sponsor Travis Gatewood.

Fundraising efforts were also a huge part of the planting project. Grants from the Rotary Club, Shawnee Mission Education Foundation, the Shawnee Mission South Foundation and the Prairie Village and Overland Park tree boards raised $7,400. The remaining $12,325 they collected came from student contributions and private citizens who chose to sponsor the cost of an individual tree for $75.

Each student in South’s National Honor Society contributed at least $15.

“It was a really great outpouring of support from NHS, Shawnee Mission families and the community. We got way more donations than we were expecting,” Chase said.

Originally, the plan was to have all five Shawnee Mission High School National Honor Societies combine to make the project happen. Shawnee Mission East’s club did participate, as did individual students from Shawnee Mission Northwest and Kansas City Christian.

To plant the trees, students divided into small groups to go to the many site all over the county. All of the group leaders got tree-planting training from The Heartland Tree Alliance.

“There are specific details you need to think about, like finding the first lateral root, the first major root coming out from the tree. You need to uncover that and make sure there’s no soil on it. If you bury that, it’s really hard for the tree to survive,” Chase said.

Armed with shovels, hand rakes and a few pick-axes, the volunteers planted all the trees April 24.

“There’s been a few parts that are a lot of hard work, but for the most part, it’s been really fun,” Chase said.

He hopes other students will pick up the mantle next year and make it an annual project.

“It’s not just a bunch of high-schoolers planting trees for fun,” Chase said. “We really want to make an impact in our community and show how much we care.”