Dec. 19 2018 06:00 AM

Under her leadership, Project EverGreen is helping spread the joy of green spaces to communities and families who need it.

There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens when someone first gets introduced to the green industry. They learn about the business and meet the people in it. It doesn’t take long after getting a taste of it to decide they never want to leave it. That has certainly been the case for Cindy Code, executive director of the Cleveland-based nonprofit Project EverGreen, who is reminded daily of the kindness and generosity of people in our industry.

When she went to Ohio University to earn her degree in journalism, she never imagined her whole career would be built around our industry. But if you ask her, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My background was really more in news reporting. I worked on the school newspaper in high school and college and I thought I would go into that area of journalism,” she recalls. But after graduating and returning to her hometown of Cleveland to find a job, another avenue opened up.

She received a call from a magazine publishing company that produced a landscape industry magazine and wound up taking a job there. At the time, she says, “I thought it was going to be one of those jobs where I stayed there for a couple of years and moved on to something else.”

Code ended up staying a little longer than a couple of years … 20, in fact. “That’s how I got into the landscape industry. I never had any other background in the industry nor any aspirations to go into it, but I’m so glad I did.”

Though it wasn’t initially what she had envisioned for her career, she would not change it, “It’s turned out to be a great industry with just amazing individuals. It’s been a good fit for me,” she says. These days at Project Evergreen, she isn’t the one writing the stories, she’s giving people something to write about.

Spreading the word

The green industry has no doubt left a lasting impression on Code. So much so that about 15 years ago, she and four others in the industry decided they couldn’t keep it secret anymore. They realized that people involved in the industry already knew how special it was, so the existing communication channels were only “preaching to the choir.” There had to be a way to show others how great it was, too.

As it turns out, there was a way. It took the form of Project EverGreen, which was founded in 2003. “It evolved from a group of individuals who all worked within the industry who wanted to share all the good that comes from the professional side of the industry,” Code explains.

Often, Code would find herself having discussions with other communications professionals that felt the same way she did about the industry. “We’d talk to each other about what wonderful people work in the landscape industry or the wonderful services that suppliers, distributors and end users provide to homeowners, commercial property managers and golf courses.”

Our industry regularly sees the economic and social benefits of green spaces. Whether it’s increasing occupancy rates and property values, reducing crime or simply brightening up a person’s day. So why has it seemed like all this good has been the best-guarded secret?

Project EverGreen began as a national public relations initiative to share the benefits of the industry with others. It was started by those in the industry, including Code. Another green industry communicator, Den Gardner, became the first executive director of the organization. Code was on the original board and served as board president for two years.

Around 2009, she left her position with the magazine and branched out on her own. When Gardner retired from his position in 2011, Code then decided to take the reins as executive director.

All those years of being involved with Project EverGreen made it a smooth transition for Code. “It had been a labor of love all these years. The transition was seamless and seemed like a good fit.”

Bringing people together

Nowadays, Project EverGreen is doing tremendous things, expanding its role from providing PR about the benefits of the industry to spearheading the creation of those benefits with the help of communities all over the country.

The organization’s mission of “bringing people together to make a difference in how our yards, parks and communities create a greener, healthier, cooler earth” is what drives the organization, Code says. A large piece of Project EverGreen’s mission is bringing people together. “Collaboration is just a huge part of our mission. It’s bringing together private and public entities, local businesses, community groups and professional lawn and landscape contractors to work to improve parks and public green spaces in urban areas.”

Often times people would like to volunteer and give back to their communities in some way, but simply don’t know how, according to Code. “Project EverGreen provides the platform to help people achieve those goals.”

Project EverGreen has managed quite an array of projects, including community parks, sports fields and inner-city parks all over the country, in states like New York, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas, Florida and California. Its biggest project to date is in Detroit, where Project EverGreen has spent the last 18 months working with the community to make improvements to an 18-acre park.

The organization does its homework in the cities where it takes on projects; it doesn’t just swoop in and take over. It is very much a collaboration with the community, according to Code.

“We get to know the neighborhood surrounding the park or project, the needs of residents and the nature of the community. We work with the people in it to help determine what’s needed to improve their parks and neighborhoods.”

This is important, she says, because people in the community need to feel like they are part of the project if they are going to participate. “We want them to understand the services and why we’re doing what we’re doing. This way, they can help keep their parks vital and vibrant long after Project Ever- Green leaves.”

Project EverGreen will find candidates for projects in a variety of ways. It has held contests where communities can nominate their parks. Sometimes businesses will reach out, wanting their employees to be involved with a project in the city where their company is located. Code says it can sometimes be hard to convince city officials that the projects won’t cost anything, in dollars, anyway. They require volunteers and their sweat, but that is all.

“It’s a lot of work but it’s satisfying,” she says.

Sprucing up Detroit

Code is pleased with the work Project EverGreen recently completed in Detroit, its biggest project to date. The Motor City has certainly had its fair share of negative headlines for years because of all the blighted properties and a bankruptcy filing. But more recently, some positive press has come its way because of its revitalization efforts. Code says that what often happens with cities experiencing a renaissance is that the downtowns will improve while the neighborhoods lag behind.

So Code and Project EverGreen decided to help. “We wanted to work with the city of Detroit. They were already working on a smaller park initiative to improve parks that were 5 acres and below. We wanted to help them tackle this big 18-acre project because we knew it would be far down on their list to improve,” she says.

Before they settled on a location, city representatives took the Project EverGreen board around the city and showed them about 10 different parks that could be potential candidates for a project. They were all different sizes and different distances from downtown.

Code knew right away which park would fit the bill for a project. After working with the organization for so long, Code says “you get a sense for which parks or which areas our efforts are going to make the biggest difference.”

The board came to Pingree Park, a two-block park in the middle of an urban area. “The park was almost telling its own story,” Code describes.

Half of the park was covered with trees and the other half was a sports area for kids to play on. Looking at it, you could get a sense that it must have been a vibrant place back in its heyday, says Code. “You could tell that there was a love there that had been lost because it hadn’t been maintained.”

Code and her team started to get to know the people who lived in the community, many of whom have lived there for 50 years and are raising their grandkids in the same neighborhood. They told stories about the park that revealed a fondness for it.

Building on her instincts, she says of Pingree Park, “It kind of picked us once we heard the stories.”

The next step was to enlist the help of local sports, church and community groups. The project also needed a team lead. Fortunately, Code has many landscape contractor friends from her years in the industry, so she reached out to them. Troy Clogg, owner of Troy Clogg Landscape Associates signed on for the role. The local landscape contractor was one of several industry partners who volunteered time and supplies to the project.

Then, it was time to get to work. About 200 volunteers participated in each of the project’s two phases, the first phase began in the fall of 2017. The second phase commenced in spring 2018. Among the many improvements that made a huge difference was tree pruning. The undergrowth had gotten so bad that you couldn’t even see across the park. But once the trees were cleaned up, “immediately neighbors were looking across the park at houses they haven’t seen for so long, and they felt immediately safer,” says Code.

A new walkway has created a friendlier environment by taking people walking their dogs or pushing their strollers further into the middle of the park to experience the trees and grass, and encourage them to interact with one another.

“If you know your neighbors, you look out for your neighbors, so it really creates this community vibe,” Code explains.

Now that Project EverGreen’s work is done, it’s up to the city parks department to maintain it and to the neighbors to continue to use and care for it. Because of Project EverGreen’s improvements, that job is much easier.

Code explains that Project EverGreen really just sets the stage. “The work that we do is really just the beginning. The real story is creating these community hubs in neighborhoods so that socialization is vibrant, and the neighborhood works together to help sustain and grow their park and their community.”

Project EverGreen also shares the environmental impact of its projects on social media and on its website. To date, the organization has been involved with approximately 25 to 30 projects of various scopes and sizes. In addition to Pingree Park, there’ve been other notable projects, including a “pocket park” project complete with a vegetable garden in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood, and a park in Durham, North Carolina, that had previously been vandalized and was considered unsafe.

Servicing the military

Doing all these projects may seem like a tall order, but Project EverGreen’s charity doesn’t stop there. It also partners with the industry to provide services for military families. The nationwide program GreenCare for Troops, launched in 2006, matches volunteers from lawn and landscape companies with active-duty military families to provide free lawn and landscape services for the full length of the service member’s deployment.

Families register online and select the services they need, while the volunteers register online selecting the services they can provide, the number of families they’re able to service and the distance they’re are willing to travel. Then, the families and the volunteers are matched up. It’s sister program, SnowCare for Troops, launched in 2010, matches up snow removal volunteers with families because, according to Code, a lot of the lawn and landscape volunteers who also have snow removal businesses “didn’t want to leave these families high and dry in the wintertime.”

Every year about 1,000 military families receive services from these programs. When a family member is deployed, the other spouse is left to take care of the kids as well as the shopping, cooking, cleaning and bill paying all alone. GreenCare for Troops is designed to give the spouse left behind peace of mind, and to provide a serene and safe environment for the kids to play. Over the history of the program, more than 5,000 landscape contractors have provided their services for free to GreenCare and Snow- Care for Troops.

The people, the stories After hearing about all the projects and programs Project EverGreen provides, you may be wondering how Code keeps up with it all. “We could use a few more hands,” she kids.

Two program managers for the GreenCare and SnowCare for Troops programs, Ki Matsko and Nici Trem, are on staff, but it’s just the three of them working out of the Cleveland area office. The organization does get some outside help with its website and PR, and the board also is very involved. “Our board is nationwide, made up of people from all over the country. They are very active as well,” she says.

The project work is the easiest part of her job, and the most fun. Code has learned a lesson or two from all those landscape contractors she’s interviewed and visited with over the years. “It seems more than just a business, it is kind of a lifestyle for the majority of them,” she says. Through these interactions, she has learned the value of honesty and transparency and the importance of learning.

In the communities where Project EverGreen works, Code tries to learn as much as she can about the people living there. She wants to understand what motivates them so she knows how Project EverGreen can make the biggest impact.

“What I like most is meeting the people in the communities and learning their backgrounds,” she says. She hears stories from people who grew up in the Depression as well as from young people who have decided to come back and live in the same community as their grandparents. “Working alongside them, you just become family,” says Code.

One of the residents near Pingree Park recently sent her a picture of the family’s new dog and of the kids playing on the walking path that was just installed. She hears stories all the time about greenCare for Troops volunteers who’ve done more than was asked of them, like installing new turf or putting in a swing set for a family.

It’s a welcome reminder that there are plenty of good people still in this world. “So much positive is generated from the work we do,” she says.

Code feels she’d be remiss if she took all the credit for Project EverGreen, however. “I am lucky to be the face of Project EverGreen, but so many people are involved in making it possible. It’s a huge labor of love by so many, whether it’s the people serving on our board, our volunteers or the in-kind donors.”

She adds, “I am fortunate to be the person to lead the charge.”

Heroes Helping Heroes

As part of GreenCare and SnowCare for Troops, Project EverGreen has launched Heroes Helping Heroes, where the volunteers are those who have also served their country as veterans, active-duty military members or first responders. These volunteers have been continuing to serve in the form of providing lawn care, basic landscape or snow plowing services to families of deployed military personnel.

“Not only have these individuals proudly served or are currently serving our country, but they are willing to go the extra mile and help military families during their time of greatest need,” Cindy Code, executive director, Project EverGreen, says.

Detroit’s Pingree Park improvements

The improvements to Detroit’s Pingree Park through Project EverGreen were made in two phases. The project, which began in 2017 and was completed in 2018, included the following repairs and enhancements:

  • tree pruning
  • grass aeration
  • adding nutrients to the grass
  • field grading
  • ballfield repair
  • bleacher and backstop painting
  • seeding and spot-seeding
  • mulching
  • tree planting
  • new natural play mounds
  • a new walking path

So much to share: Visit Project EverGreen’s website, www.projectevergreen.org, for more information on its projects, a community playbook, resources that share the many benefits of green spaces and how to become a volunteer in the GreenCare and SnowCare for Troops programs.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kristinsmithely@igin.com.