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Peirone Prize Winner - Kat Hall 

How one woman gets high school students really, really excited about trees and manual labor

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On most levels, the Spokane Valley backyard that Kat Hall is standing in is typical. The sun beats down heavily on the dark green grass as a small white dog runs around barking next to a small garden.

But then there are the trees — around 2,000 of them. There’s hawthorn, thinleaf alders, cedars, dogwood and black cottonwood, all standing about three feet high in pots, lined together in a straight grid pattern. The seeds come in April, they grow throughout the summer, and — in the spring and the fall — they’re planted throughout Spokane.

Hall, head of Project Sustain for the Lands Council, sticks her hands in her pockets and sways back and forth on her heels, smiling broadly. These are the things she’d always loved. Teaching and learning. And trees.

KAT HALL

AGE: 39

POSITION: Conservation Programs Director, The Lands Council

MY PHILOSOPHY ON LIFE IS: Do your best, give more than you take, experience all you can; love and be loved; have fun; make a difference and go quietly.

I GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY BECAUSE: It’s the right thing to do. As Mohammed Ali said, “The service you do for others is the rent you pay for the time you spend on Earth.”

I WISH FOR: All of us to live more on the “pay it forward” principle to help spread kindness and goodness in the world.

I LOOK UP TO: My parents, my cousin Marina, and people who, in the face of suffering, adversity, and seemingly impossible obstacles, find courage, joy and a way to change the world.

With college degrees in natural resources and environmental management, she spent about four years in West Africa doing agroforestry for the Peace Corps, where, among other things, she planted trees. In southeast Alaska, as part of a youth corps, she worked with at-risk youth struggling with drug and alcohol and domestic violence. There, the point was to get them out doing trail projects or highway restoration programs.

When she looks at all the stuff she’s done, she sees a lot of similarities: Whether it’s community service or working with kids, somehow trees always seem to be involved.

Today, with Project Sustain, she helps tackles two problems simultaneously: Specific places in Spokane need trees, and Spokane kids don’t get to go on many field trips.

Addressing the first problem is simple. In some areas of Spokane, like Hangman Creek, there’s a lot of agricultural runoff and erosion. But if trees are planted here, as their roots grow down, they hold the soil firm, preventing runoff and eventually protecting the river. For the Lands Council, a local advocacy group working to protect forests and rivers, that’s a big deal.

It helps to have volunteers to plant those trees — so that’s where the kids come in.

“When kids actually get outside, when they’re with their peers, they’re getting their hands dirty, they’re smelling and they’re feeling and they’re looking and they’re participating — as opposed to sitting in a desk in a classroom — they transform,” Hall says, emphasizes the word as her hands animate. “You can see it in their eyes almost.”

It started informally three or four years ago when Hall began working with local students with the Gonzaga Earthbound program, which provides environmental after-school education for elementary- and middle-school students. Word began getting around to local school districts.

“It appears that lots of schools either don’t have a budget for field trips or they’re very much reduced,” Hall says.

Project Sustain raises funds from members of the business community, and sends the kids on tree-planting field trips. For the local environmental advocacy group, it’s been one of their most successful programs.

“Wow, I’m working on planting trees with an A.P. environmental class at North Central High School, and this is their only time they’re getting outside all year,” Halls says. “And this is a college-level environmental class.”

She’s an evangelist for the outdoors, for how far that simple change of environment goes. She practices what she preaches — kayaking and sailing in her free time.

Project Sustain is one of many things she does for the Lands Council. Last year, the Reforest Spokane project that she started planted 10,000 Ponderosa pine trees. With assistance from a Head Start program, she started an effort that tested youth for lead levels. About 11 percent of tested kids, she says, have elevated lead levels in their blood.

She also meets with homeless, low-income and ethnic populations to educate them about the toxic parts of the Spokane River. Many of them spend a lot of time next to the river and may not get the health information that others do, and many are from Russian, Slavic or other local ethnic populations.

Though she doesn’t speak Russian, Hall says her time in Cameroon gives her an advantage. “I do have a lot of memories of just breaking through cultural barriers and working hand-in-hand or side-by-side in the field and planting trees and then eating a big feast and drinking palm oil and celebrating,” she says. “And doing what people do. I have some of my best memories of my life doing things like that.”

She unfolds a few stapled pages of paper from her pocket, highlighting quotes of area students reacting to Project Sustain. Maria from Ferris High School says she can’t wait to take environmental science classes at the University of Washington, something she wouldn’t have even considered that before. Michael from West Valley City School, who’d wanted to be a “game programmer” for the past two years, is considering a career as scientist.

And then there’s Briauna from Ferris: “During our time at Hangman Creek, our class got to experience the magnificent presence of a bald eagle, the first wild bald eagle that I have ever seen in my life,” she writes. “At the end of the trip, my feet were soaking from falling into one of the many crevices the creek makes, but I barely noticed because of the happiness I felt.”

“It’s an image of these three teenage girls who just weren’t really dressed for the occasion — who were almost knee-deep in mud,” she laughs “… planting trees along this water course and they had smiles from ear to ear. And they just — they couldn’t have been happier. It’s like I said before. Just get them outside, they change.”

That’s why Kat Hall loves her job. 

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