It started with a favor. But now, more than a decade later, the Tree Army is removing trees, and then some.
This holiday season, the veteran-owned organization is acting as the hero in a Christmas special. Filling in for Amtrak, which won’t be able to deliver Toys for Tots donations to the tri-state area as it has in the past, the Tree Army will take care of transportation this Christmas — the way Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer saved the holidays by stepping in when other reindeer couldn’t.
“My husband and I were sitting on the couch watching the news and we saw that Amtrak will not be delivering the toys this year,” said Joelle Lynch, owner of the Tree Army. “And our kids were like, ‘That’s so sad.’
“My husband looked at me, and was like, ‘We’ll do it.’”
Soon after, the Kingsbridge-based company began moving toys for the program to the Toys for Tots warehouse. It holds presents for up to 500 families with children ranging from infants to teenagers — helping the program serve 700 communities in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Both Lynch and her husband Nicholas are veterans, so helping an organization run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve simply made sense.
“We are trying to kind of get the word out for Toys for Tots and families in need so that they will have everything they need,” Lynch said.
The tree removal organization not only offers a helping hand during the holidays, but also partners with the 50th Precinct and other non-profits throughout the year. They have even lent a hand in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
After her own tour of duty in the U.S. Army, Lynch left the service knowing she wanted to do something for veterans like her and Nicholas. That’s where the Tree Army was born, creating new civilian avenues of service for those who have already served their country.
“A lot of the programs out there are geared toward higher-ranking officers, and we set out a way to give back,” Lynch said. “We do a lot of community projects. We hire veterans and we have family members of military veterans, and we help them learn a trade that they can use in the future. And just being employed, it helps combat the homeless issue and suicide rate among veterans.”
When it comes to returning home, the challenges a former soldier faces are usually everyday struggles, Lynch said. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 20 veterans take their own lives each day.
“Being in the military changes you,” Lynch said. “It changes the way you think and behave, and some people say it makes a man out of you. But it changes you.”
Working in corporate spaces didn’t fulfill Lynch the way she needed, but with the Tree Army, she gets to hire and help veterans while serving her community. Her company operates anywhere within a 50-mile radius of the Bronx, and she continues to look for new ways to build what’s close to base.
For Lynch’s next local project, she wants to clear up the sidewalks and infamous steps of West 238th Street. She’d love to groom the area, but fears any snipping may lead to a fine.
While Lynch figures out the logistics behind what it would take to spruce up the neighborhood, there is still plenty of community garden work and landscaping the Tree Army does.
The physical work and camaraderie the nature of tree removal work breeds are a few of the best things about the job for Lynch. When her elderly neighbor had requested she and her husband remove a tree from her yard, they had no idea the Tree Army — years later — would branch into something so strong.
“And at that moment my husband and I looked at each other and were like, ‘People pay for this?’” Lynch recalled. “It was really the first time I felt like I did something, and I felt accomplished. I was like, ‘This feels good. I’m being active. I’m working with my hands, and I’m around other guys, and it’s like we’re back in the military. We’re being playful, talking smack and this is the best I’ve felt in a long time.’
“We can feel good about what we’re doing and give back.”