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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Girl’s wish for heart-shaped tree park becomes reality in Spokane

After plenty of pestering by a precocious 9-year-old, there’s a new grove of freshly planted trees in a north Spokane park.

Holly VanVoorhis was 7 when she asked her dad, landscape architect and Park Board member Ken VanVoorhis, if she could help him design a park. He let his daughter tinker in his drafting software until she’d designed a heart-shaped tree park.

“Immediately she said, ‘Where can we plant this in Spokane?’ ” said Holly’s mother, Mitzi VanVoorhis.

And Holly didn’t stop asking.

“I was just begging for it to come to life,” she said.

She begged and begged her parents to let her build her park, even asking a neighbor if she could plant the trees in their backyard.

“We kind of said, ‘Um, that’s nice,’ ” Mitzi VanVoorhis said.

Finally, after a few weeks of Holly bothering her parents, her dad called then-Mayor Mary Verner to set up an appointment. Holly brought her crumpled printout of the design to a meeting that would set into motion the project unveiled in Friendship Park on Saturday morning, two years after that day of designing with her dad.

“She’s pretty tenacious,” Ken VanVoorhis said.

Verner encouraged Holly to pursue the project and introduced her to Angel Spell, the city of Spokane’s urban forester.

The project slowed after the first meeting with Spell, Holly asking the whole time when she’d see her heart-shaped tree park. Then Spell introduced Holly to Nancy MacKerrow, founder of the Susie Forest. MacKerrow has been helping plant trees worldwide in memory of her daughter, Susie Stephens, who died in 2002.

“If you really want something to happen in your life and you work hard and find the right people, you can make it happen,” MacKerrow said.

MacKerrow donated the sweet gum trees, and they were planted last week.

About 50 people gathered in the park Saturday, braving cold temperatures and thick fog to hear Holly’s story. Eight of the 10 trees will be dedicated to Spokane programs that help children, including Anna Ogden Hall, the Spokane Guilds’ School, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Members of the organizations gathered in the park to see their trees and hang tags with children’s wishes on them from the branches. MacKerrow said as the tags fall and disintegrate, the wishes will grow and become a part of the tree.

Keith O’Brien, development director for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, hung tags with brightly colored squiggles from his tree near the top of the heart-shaped grove. The children at the nursery are too young to write wishes yet, he said.

“We love it,” O’Brien said of being included among the trees. “We’re a grass-roots agency and this is a grass-roots idea.”

It was exciting to dedicate the trees to children’s groups, Holly said, otherwise “it would just be a park with some trees in the shape of something.”

Another tree will be dedicated to Holly, and on Tuesday the Urban Forestry Program will plant the 10th tree in the heart to mark the 10th anniversary of the first tree planted in the Susie Forest. A group of Boy Scouts started Tuesday’s task on Saturday, digging a hole where the last tree will go.

“These are the projects and these are the events that make my job so amazing,” Spell said. “It gives all these people here connection to each other, connection to these trees, connection to nature, and it’s all because of Holly’s idea.”