A bunch of jolly young elves were hard at work unloading 835 Christmas trees from the back of a semi-trailer truck in the Crescenta Cañada YMCA’s parking lot Sunday afternoon.
One of them was Colin Jacobs, a St. Francis senior sporting dozens of pine needles and grin that would not quit.
“I love this!” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it pays off so it feels good.”
All that effort, by Jacobs and the other 70-plus teens involved in the YMCA’s Youth in Business Club, was a contribution in a longstanding local holiday tradition associated with the YMCA of the Foothills Christmas Tree Lot. The lot has come to provide teenagers an opportunity for real-life work experience while raising funds for kids who need help covering the cost of YMCA programs ranging from swim lessons to camping excursions.
Since the 1960s, the lot has been a prime destination for area Christmas tree shoppers, said Thom Martin, vice president of Youth Development for YMCA of the Foothills.
According to Martin, the YMCA’s popular Youth and Government program helped run the lot for the past 25 years, “and really took the leadership.” Then, five years ago, the 85 members of the Youth in Business Club — most of whom also participate in Youth and Government — took the reins.
“For the last five years, they’ve worked from August to Christmas, organizing and marketing and doing a lot of the stuff that it takes to run a tree lot,” said Martin, who oversees the young workers, one of whom he was as a teen.
“They go through a process of looking at last year’s sales, looking at what went well,” Martin continued. “I call the order in, but they do the math behind it and think, ‘This year, we’ll be selling more of these types of trees.’”
The teens in Youth in Business all work shifts at the lot, which opened this week and will run through Dec. 20. Collectively, they’ll contribute almost 3,000 hours of volunteer work, carry about 100,000 pounds of trees and raising more than $50,000 to help cover YMCA fees for kids who qualify for assistance.
The funds raised also will help cover some Youth and Government costs, including helping pay for buses to Sacramento, said Owen Park, one of this year’s youth managers.
But that’s not all that is so delightful about the experience, according to Aiden Horn, a fellow manager.
“The work is gratifying,” said Horn, who, like Park, attends Crescenta Valley High School. “You see people come in and they’re very excited. You sell them a tree and they’re very happy. It’s great to see people who’ve come back, year after year, and they just love the experience of letting kids help them — and we do get a lot of shocked people who are surprised that we can run it so efficiently.”
And these kids know their Pinaceae tree family facts, capable of recommending a Nordmann, a Noble, a Douglas or a grand.
“I definitely can recommend trees a lot more carefully now,” said Horn, who’s worked the lot for the past few years. “When people ask me to recommend a tree, I have a list of like 10 criteria for them: How big is your space? How long do you want it to last? When are you buying it? And you also learn what people are actually looking for — some people just want a big fir tree and it doesn’t matter what the name is.”
Darren Pung and Paolo Rizzo, both students at La Cañada High School in addition to being veteran Christmas tree salesmen, said they’ve both become partial to a particular type of tree — the Noble.
“Most Nobles are just full!” said Pung, taking a quick break from his job setting up signs.
“They’ve got thick branches, they’re really sturdy and they just smell great,” added Rizzo, who was toting a couple of metal stakes.
They were helpers amidst a hive of activity on Sunday, when it was all hands on deck to greet the first shipment of trees (eventually, 2,000 will be delivered). The trees were separated and had their trunks drilled to be readied on stands, all while ’80s rock and ’90s hip-hop encouraged a brisk pace.
When the lot is open, “we’ll be blasting the Christmas carols,” Park said.
And at 5 p.m. on Dec. 8, caroling groups will perform at a tree-lighting ceremony.
“For me,” Rizzo said, “being at the lot is like, ‘All right, Christmas is here.’”