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Newton plants trees in living memorial of those lost to COVID

From left: Maeve Sockwell, Elizabeth Sockwell, Nora Flint, and Yoshi Futai spell out the four C’s of the 4C Tree Project. The goal is to plant 300 trees around the city by the fall.
From left: Maeve Sockwell, Elizabeth Sockwell, Nora Flint, and Yoshi Futai spell out the four C’s of the 4C Tree Project. The goal is to plant 300 trees around the city by the fall.Nora Flint

Nearly 300 people have donated money to plant trees in Newton in honor of residents who have died from COVID-19 — leaving messages on the fund-raising website such as “a community worth supporting,” “green is so good,” and “he loved to climb trees.”

The 4C Tree Project — spearheaded by youths, environmentalists, and activists — aims to create a “living memorial” to those who lost their lives from the pandemic.

Elizabeth Sockwell, a Newton native who is a senior history major at Trinity College, in Hartford, started the 4C Tree Project with the support of Green Newton’s Environmental Leadership Program.

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After the country reached the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths from COVID-19 in September, Sockwell considered past memorials and wanted to find a way to honor those lost now. She said she connected with other young people through Green Newton, and her tree memorial idea grew “organically” from there.

“This tree memorial is a way not only to honor those who have died tragically, but also as a way to really lift others up and give something,” she said.

The four C’s of the 4C Tree Project stand for “Capture, Carbon, Commemorate COVID-19,” and the trees will function as a sustainable, growing tribute.

So far, more than $43,000 has been raised of a $60,000 goal, and donations are still being accepted.

The trees will live and grow in Newton parks and playgrounds, outside schools, and along Commonwealth Avenue. Spring planting will conclude mid-May.

“I thought it would just be really important to have something that five years from now, 10 years from now, 50 years from now, people see these trees and think on those who have passed away,” Sockwell said. “And reflect on how precious our lives are.”

As of April 21, 214 Newton residents had died from COVID-19, according to an e-mail update from Mayor Ruthanne Fuller. Though 170 trees have been purchased already, the group’s ultimate goal is to plant 300 trees by the fall.

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The trees come in a variety of shapes and sizes — mostly oak, elm, and linden purchased from a nursery in New York. A significant goal of the project is also to restore Newton’s tree canopy, after about half of the city’s trees died, tumbled in storms, or were removed since the 1970s.

Marc Welch, the city forester and deputy commissioner of the Parks, Recreation, and Culture Department, helped coordinate the tree selection, type, and planting location, as well as guiding youth leaders, he said.

“Anything we can do to add trees back, we are going to take that opportunity,” he said.

Welch said the trees being planted are in the “very early stages of their life,” most at 5 to 7 feet tall and an inch-and-a-half thick.

“Unlike things like memorial benches — which are great things, too — trees grow, and they get bigger, and they really create a sense of place,” he said. “Over time, they’re something that can last generations.”

On April 28, fifth-grade students from Ward Elementary School helped plant trees on their campus, according to Welch. He said he hopes the trees become a “focal point within the school” — supporting projects in science and establishing a sense of place on the grounds.

Boston College, the city’s parent teacher organizations, the mayor, and city officials have been supportive of the project, Sockwell said.

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“Really, it’s been a community effort,” Sockwell said. “All these people from across the city have spent time and energy on planning this, and on fund-raising for this as well.”

Marcia Cooper, president of Green Newton, said the “fabulous project” has gained more support than she could have anticipated.

“There was all this uncertainty, but Elizabeth and the students were the driving force behind it,” she said. “We never imagined that the project would be as successful.”

She said each person who’s donated has received a written “message of appreciation” from youths at Green Newton.

Yoshi Futai, a senior at Newton South High School, said she got involved in the project after hearing about it in a sustainability class.

Futai, who is planning to study sustainable agriculture and the environment at the University of British Columbia after graduation, said working on this project is the “starting point of [her] passion of getting the world in a better place.”

She said she hopes the trees bring vitality and renewal to the city and allow people to reflect and remember residents who have been lost.

“It gives us a reminder that we cannot forget about these people,” she said. “We don’t want people to forget about this pandemic, and we want to sort of convert that into a living memorial and make their memory a really lasting one.”

Sockwell said urban trees have been correlated with improved recovery and health, reduced crime, increased property values, and more connection in the community. She said she hopes the project restores some hope in Newton after a difficult year.

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“We’ve suffered such a great loss,” she said. “Because so many lives have been taken tragically and far too soon, I think it’s our obligation to come together and to do something beautiful.”

Lily Kepner can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.