Trees for Love | Planting Seedlings to Remember Those We Lost to Covid

Washington (GGM) Analysis | September 15, 2021 by author and climate journalist Noreen Wise

On October 24, 2020, when covid was ramping up for another major spike, both physical and economic, Gallant Gold Media hosted a free distribution of native redbud and button bush seedlings, at Parking Lot P at George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia. The campaign was called Trees for Love and the seedlings were being planted to remember those we lost to covid in our communities. Fairfax ReLeaf supplied the free seedlings. The Fairfax Tree Commission was an essential liaison that helped get everything off the ground, which enabled the free seedling distribution to come to fruition by connecting the various organizations while in the middle of a pandemic. 

Gallant Gold Media’s Trees for Love Campaign. Planting trees to remember those we lost to covid. Funded by Fairfax City Reconnect Reimbursement Grant.

It takes a village.

This memorable campaign ended up being the largest community tree planting success in the state of Virginia in 2020. The Burke Centre Conservancy was the largest group of planters, distributing 146 Fairfax ReLeaf free seedlings to their Clusters and residences. The rest of the redbud and button bush seedlings were claimed by Northern Virginia residents, many of whom were moved by friends and family who’d been lost to covid and were searching to find a meaningful way to honor their memory. We’re running this story again, after the little seedlings began waking up this spring in their new homes, and stretched their tiny limbs while reaching for the sun and are now another year older. More than 169 million Americans, 51 percent of population, are fully vaccinated.

As exciting as this may be, the pandemic will never be over for those connected to the 664,000 Americans who lost their lives to covid. Many family and friends are struggling with the heavy loss. Others are coping in whatever way they deem works best for them, for some, this is through nature, and planting trees to remember their loved ones.

Burke Centre Conservancy are big tree planters, here’s a photo from 2019

One such Fairfax County resident is Dawn Zimmerman. Dawn, a Virginia State licensed professional counselor, operating her solo practice Imago Dei Counseling in Fairfax City, attributes her love of nature and gardening and the outdoors to her grandfather, a midwest farmer, as well as spending her childhood in Thailand. Although born in metro Washington DC, Dawn’s father was a State Department Foreign Service Officer. From a young age Dawn seems to have become well-acquainted with the understanding of how important it is to connect with others in our community and let them know we care, especially during a crisis.

Whether it’s Dawn’s close connection to the State Department, her career as a counselor, or her passion for nature, Dawn felt compelled to enrich Northern Virginia with multiple Virginia Native redbuds and button bushes to honor the five family and friends she’s lost to Covid. Dawn wanted us to know more than just their names though, she was eager to share their stories.

Ron Ontko: Dawn’s honorary uncle, passed away from Covid related complications on April 2, 2020 in Hendersonville, NC. He was 89 years old. Ron and his wife Carol, met in Wisconsin, and after college, while in a young couples group at Grace Lutheran Church in Washington, DC,  became good friends with Dawn’s parents. The two couples went on to become lifelong friends. Ron was an avid photographer and devoted ‘Skins fan, but his career was spent in public service. After graduating high school, Ron served in the United States Air Force, before he returned to school. He received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Russian Studies from the University of Wisconsin and then his master’s degree in international law from George Washington University. From there, Ron worked for the NSA, the United States Senate, and the US State Department, which is quite a remarkable resume. Ron Ontko was a Freemason and a Shiner, participating in fundraising for numerous children’s charities. He is survived by his wife Carol of 62 years, as well as his son, Andrew, and daughter, Julie.

Ron Ontko and his wife Carol

Jack “Zeke” Zimmerman: Zeke is Dawn’s uncle, who was lost to Covid related pneumonia on October 21, 2020 at aged 86 in Frederick, MD. Survived by wife Lynn, sons Steve (Andrea) and grandsons Eric and Mark of Memphis, TN; Paul of Wilmington, DE and was predeceased by son John, Silver Spring, MD.  Also survived by Mary Lee Zimmerman, his first wife and the mother of their three sons; Daughter-in-Law Christie (widow of John) and grandchildren John Paul “JP” and Maria. 

Uncle Zeke

The following is a loving tribute written by Zeke’s grandson, Mark Zimmerman:
Zeke Zimmerman was known to many as the “Godfather of DC Metropolitan Area Sandlot Basketball.”  GrandJack lived his life around basketball. He grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and fielded basketball teams. He formed teams from players that he would recruit from across the country. Around 1950, having teams with multiple races was unprecedented. My grandfather did not judge a player based on his skin color, but on his basketball ability. Jack was known as Zeke Zimmerman in the D.C. area. He formed a team called “Zeke’s All-Stars.” This was the first team that had both black and white players in the D.C. area. Because my grandfather did not judge a player based on his race, many black basketball players were able to go to college for basketball or even the NBA. A couple of years ago, he gave me a jersey from the 1950 Zeke’s All-Stars team. This jersey is a symbol of my family’s value of inclusion. It did not matter which race wore this specific jersey. The only thing that mattered was that my grandfather saw talent in that young man, and he wanted to help. My family still holds the values of inclusion and equality in our everyday lives, as we do not judge people based on their skin tone, but on their personality.

Redbud and button bush seedlings planted to remember Zeke Zimerman and Ron Ontko

Below is a State Department obituary with a few extra details provided by Dawn:
Patrick “David” Husar, 67, died May 9, in Arlington, VA. David was born in Lorain, Ohio located on Lake Erie and 30 miles West of Cleveland. At University of Kentucky, where David majored in history, one of his professors encouraged him to consider a career with the Foreign Service. Joining in 1976, Husar served as a consular officer at posts in Pakistan, India, and the Philippines before transitioning to Civil Service. He retired in 2016 and enjoyed long walks around the Washington area, was an avid reader, and was dedicated to his faith. He is survived by his wife, Jonahlyn; a brother Michael; and extended family in the Philippines.

David and Jonalyn Husar
David and Jonalyn Husar

Daniel Lee: Spending a few minutes on Google images to view the architectural designs that Daniel Lee graced upon all of us here in the United States, is sure to inspire. And inspiration is certainly the impulse Mr. Lee appears to have been striving for when he graduated from the Mississippi School of Architecture in 1981 and began his career in classical architecture as an intern with Allen Greenberg. Mr. Greenberg is one of the premier classical architects of the twenty-first century. The son of Protestant missionaries, Mr. Lee’s love of classical architecture sprung from his childhood in Paris, France, surrounded by neoclassical landmarks erected during the reign of Louis XIV and that continued all the way through Louis XVI. Many of us here in Virginia are endowed with an inherent appreciation for classical architecture, which dates back to the founding of our most historic cities. So it’s with great sadness that we lost Mr. Lee to Covid on August 17, 2020, at age 64. Mr. Lee is survived by his wife of 40 years, Leonor Lee, his two sons, Stephen and Christopher, and two daughters, Susanne and Katherine.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee and his wife Leonor Lee
Redbud seedling planted to remember Daniel Lee

There’s an additional friend of the family. In Dawn’s own words:
Pat Purcell died from Covid related complications on May 11th, 2020 in Fairfax, VA. Pat resided in the same Senior living community as my mom and was the elderly mother of Ann Lawrence, a friend of my parents from their local Lutheran Church. Mom and Pat became friends but lived on different floors and in different areas of the building. Interestingly, Pat was actually a member of a local Baptist Church but was adopted by the Lutheran pastor, Rev Sandy Kessinger who made regular visits to their Continuing Care Community. 

Redbud seedlings planted to remember Pat Purcell

Dawn spent 10 years working at the State Department before starting her counseling firm. After buying her townhouse, she became involved with her HOA replanting project, which she finds life affirming. During the first five years, Dawn planted five trees, as well as a slew of shrubs and perennials. Dawn was sidelined from her gardening last year following two minor car accidents which required physical therapy. But thankfully, she returned with all her passion and began removing hundreds of “small, weedy Rose of Sharon saplings and bush honeysuckle” that were rapidly spreading in the HOA areas. She’d learned about the importance of growing Virginia Natives and was determined to correct the situation.

Dawn’s Virginia native Trees for Love redbud and buttonbush seedlings are planted in three HOA areas in Dawn’s Northern Virginia townhouse community. Dawn received a note from one family member who expressed, “That’s perfect; thank you. Not just words but heartfelt, tears flowing, gratitude.”

When I asked Dawn for one final thought on the importance of planting trees, she responded with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: 
“When we plant a tree, we are doing what we can to make our planet a more wholesome and happier dwelling-place for those who come after us if not for ourselves.”

Thanks so much, Dawn! You are a great inspiration to so many. 

When Dawn and I had tea on Wednesday, she explained that she planted more seedlings this spring, to remember the additional friends who lost their lives to covid after her October seedling planting. She spoke about how therapeutic nature is, and the wonderful peaceful feeling we can all receive when we stick our hands in the soil and carefully place the bare roots in the awaiting space where the sapling will soon take root and begin its slow and steady climb toward the sky.

© Copyright 2018 – 2021. ALL Rights Reserved.


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Our Microplastic Crisis and a Young First Responder

Washington (GGM) Analysis | October 23, 2020 by Noreen Wise

Microplastics have become an urgent health and environmental crisis. These tiny toxic particles are literally everywhere. In our water. In our food. And in our bodies. The five (5) millimeter flecks, smaller than an ant, are made up of broken down larger plastic objects such as water and soda bottles, single-use plastic bags, multiple everyday products that we don’t think twice about, cosmetics and toothpaste for example, even our synthetic clothes that shed tiny bits of plastic while churning around in our washing machine.

Back in September 2019, science blogger Kevin Dervishi spelled out in Harvard University’s Science in the News very clearly to readers, that each of us is a first responder in this alarming crisis. Every single one of us needs to rush to act. For many, the message fell on deaf ears, which has resulted in a continued path forward toward a looming catastrophe. 

As gloomy as this may seem, a bright glimmer of hope shines through the dark clouds along the Chesapeake Bay in Northern Virginia. A youth conservation activist has been inspired and is responding to the urgent call to action. Carolyn Rohr, of Fairfax, VA, has stepped into the arena. 

During Carolyn’s junior year of high school, she followed the advice of her AP environmental science teacher, and filled out an application for the Youth Conservation Leadership Institute in Fairfax County, VA. While involved in YCLI over the summer, Carolyn seized the opportunity to research the impact microplastics have on the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay after she discovered that microplastics are Chesapeake Bay’s biggest pollutant. This jarring fact was significant. Chesapeake Bay is a watershed connected to six Mid-Atlantic states, as well as the entire population of Washington DC, and serves more than 18 million people. The majority of microplastic particles slip through filters and into our water supply.

Carolyn presented her findings to a group of more than 50 accomplished adults over a Saturday morning Green Breakfast webinar. She created a lesson plan for 7th graders that aligned with Fairfax County’s educational requirements and included multiple activities. Her polished presentation was very powerful, inspiring immediate action. Her lesson plan would certainly be a positive influence for the 7th grade population in Northern Virginia, as well as communities across the country, inspiring increased involvement in acting on eliminating as much plastic from their daily lives as possible by forming plastic-free habits and choices.

Carolyn explained that there are three main ways that microplastics enter the Chesapeake Bay:

  • Plastics in landfills
  • Littering
  • Products that go down the drain

She outlined that toothpaste is a great example of how easy it is to unwittingly pollute our own water supply. She noted that cosmetics are another everyday example. Multiple brands of both products, contain microbeads, the abrasive exfoliant that is the essential ingredient for these particular product lines.

Carloyn cautioned webinar viewers that these microplastic particles release toxic chemicals, as well as trick organisms living in the water into believing they’re full when they’re not, so they often starve to death, and that microplastics also become part of the food web process.

Most importantly, Carolyn supplied valuable insights about what each and every one of us can do to reduce the toxic plastic we’re consuming.

  • Reduce single-use plastics
  • Recycle properly
  • Refuse products that contain microbeads, which shouldn’t be too difficult since they’re now banned in all 50 states
  • Volunteer to help cleanup rivers and streams
  • Most importantly SPREAD THE WORD 

When I asked Carolyn what examples she could provide for how to spread the word, she suggested: “Social media is a great way to spread the word and spark change, it’s one of the main reasons that microbeads are being outlawed in the US. Setting an example is another great way to not only spread the word, but also to encourage action. People learn from each other; the more people you see doing something the more likely you are to follow along, that’s probably why the save the turtles anti-straw trend was so huge a year or two ago. But it has since faded.” 

This sounds wonderful. I’m all in on this!

Carolyn Rohr is a military brat, who was born in Jacksonville, NC and has lived in a diverse collection of cities across the globe, including Okinawa, Japan when she was a young and impressionable five year old. While in Okinawa, Carolyn and her family had a home close to the ocean, where she spent “a lot of time playing in the tide pools and looking at the interesting creatures.” Her family eventually settled in Northern Virginia where’s she’s lived for the past ten years. Carolyn spends most of her time outdoors, and often feels torn between her love of the ocean and her passion for the mountains. “I feel like I could spend my entire life in the mountains and I would be quite happy.” 

As a high school senior, Carolyn is busy planning for her future. She is aiming for a dual major in Film and Marine Science and hopes to attend either University of Miami in Florida or University of Delaware, “Both schools have amazing Marine Science programs that I would love to be part of.”

Carolyn has a powerful message for all of us. “‘Only you can be the change you wish to see in the world.’ – Ghandi. The only way to see the microplastic problem disappear completely is to go out into your community and play an active role in fighting against it.”

Science blogger Kevin Dervishi’s ears must be burning. Young first responders are taking bold steps to help move us all in the right direction. The 18 million along the Chesapeake Bay are greatly benefited by Carolyn’s dedication and hard work to improve the health of our watershed. Let’s do our part by following her excellent advice.

© Copyright 2018 – 2020. ALL Rights Reserved.

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