2016 Onondaga Earth Corps crew members get to know each other at orientation. Photos & videos Courtesy OEC

You may have noticed that every summer the ReLeaf conference gets an infusion of youthful energy when members of the Onondaga Earth Corps attend. Here, we learn more about this Syracuse-based organization from OEC Program Coordinator and SUNY ESF grad Adrienne Canino. “OEC is a community organization dedicated to creating jobs for youth here in Syracuse and bringing people together to understand the value of trees in our city,” she says.

Here’s a terrific video about the range of activities OEC is involved with:

The Onondaga Earth Corps (OEC) originated out of efforts to revitalize the Southside of Syracuse, NY beginning in 2004. With the backing of The Gifford Foundation, the Southside Neighborhood Action Group (SNAG) and the Southside Interfaith Community Development Corporation (formerly Southside Interfaith Housing) partnered with community member Eli MacDonald to form the Eli MacDonald Green Team. Youth ages 14-17 were hired by the program to help maintain elderly and disabled residents’ yards in a broader effort to beautify and revitalize the neighborhood.

oec-logoIn 2005, the program changed its name to the Onondaga Earth Corps and began to incorporate formal youth development and urban forestry, urban agriculture, and stormwater management training. The new name reflected the program’s affiliation with a growing national youth service and conservation corps movement. Since its inception, OEC has continued to expand in number of programming hours, number of youth and neighborhoods served, and breadth of content covered. For years OEC worked in collaboration and under the fiscal sponsorship of Southside Interfaith CDC, then Onondaga Environmental Institute, and in December of 2015 became an independent 501(c)(3).

The Corps Network of which OEC is a part honored Mohktar Mohammadi as Corpsmember of the year in 2015. Here is his moving acceptance speech, which includes descriptions of his OEC experience:

How does OEC engage youth in urban forestry?

Adrienne Canino: In the past few years our major urban forestry project has been the Street Tree Planting program as part of the award-winning Save the Rain program here in Onondaga County. This program is a partnership between government and non-profit entities that want to see Syracuse community members involved in planting trees in their neighborhoods.

We hire the crew in spring to plant trees, maintain the trees though summer, and do community outreach, including getting homeowner approval for the trees and educating residents on how to be good stewards of their new trees. Then we plant again in fall and engage as many community volunteers as we can to help us spread the word and share the great energy of tree planting and ownership of greening our streets with our neighbors.



OEC crew members have worked with the city arborist and Cornell Cooperative Extension staff to lead volunteers in large-scale community tree plantings. Sometimes this means planting 10 trees with children from a community center and at other times it means working together with over 100 volunteers to plant hundreds of trees.

Some of the OEC crew members are surprised at the long list of benefits trees provide. They typically know where oxygen comes from, but to break it down into all the reasons a tree contributes to a healthy neighborhood really strikes some of them. We have the pleasure of training and exposing youth to all kinds of new things. For instance, crew members take a short camping trip away from the city, just for a couple of nights. It is a big jump for some if they have not camped before, but inevitably it becomes a favorite part of their season with us. I can really see how their perspective on trees changes after they spend a day in the woods really looking at trees and noticing how different a forest is from a park, and from their own neighborhoods.


2016 OEC crew members

Recruitment happens through our network of partner and neighbor organizations that serve youth, the city population, or have environmental projects ongoing. The age range is 15 to 25, and we work on more than just trees with our groups throughout the year. In 2016 we had approximately 45 unduplicated crew members.

The Corps Network (TCN) is a great organization and resource for us. As a Conservation Corps, and the only one around for at least an hour in any direction, we are a unique entity in Syracuse; having opportunities through TCN is a great help for all parts of our organization. Biggest of all is our chance to become a 21st-Century Service Conservation Corps, and to fund internships and young adult crew members through an AmeriCorps program that rewards participants with a scholarship for ongoing education.

More videos about OEC here.