On a recent Saturday, about 500 volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrapped around an 8-acre forest in the middle of a field in Kansas City. The scene was captured in a striking aerial shot, and what stands out the most when you look at it is the unusual shape of the forest.

In the early 1990s, local families, members of local churches, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts gathered at this site to plant 1,600 trees in the shape of a heart — a kind of environmental art installation imbued with symbolism and history. Back then, the trees were just 2-3 twigs with roots dangling on the bottom and sparse leaves on the top. “You could hold 10 of them in one hand,” said Bob Berkebile, a sustainable architect and community planner, who designed the forest and was part of the group that planted it.

The idea was inspired by the Chief Leon Shenandoah of the Iroquois Nation, a Native American leader who visited the Peace Conference in Kansas City in 1987, and believed that the land possessed a special “heart spirit” and that people could use a reminder to “have more heart” in their daily lives.

So Berkebile and a few other enthusiasts designed a heart-shaped forest in a field near the Kansas City Airport. Over the years, a community coalesced around it: families gathering for picnics, poetry readings and kite-flying events. Pilots overhead pointed out the heart dotted with young trees to the passengers.

But once the forest was fully planted, the enthusiasm around it began to wane.

Some early volunteers got busy, others moved away. One of the leaders lost his wife and pulled back from the project. But as the people moved on, the trees kept growing. Today, the red cedars and white oaks are 50 feet high. Dense and overgrown, the forest’s heart shape is now less defined. Flooding has eroded parts of the forest, creating patchy spots throughout.

Designed as a symbol of the “heart of America,” the forest today is symbolic of the broader state of a nation that has drifted apart and lost some of its definition. Perhaps like America, it needs reshaping and loving restoration to be the symbol it is meant to be.

“This is the most important resource on the planet today,” said Brian Weinberg, director at the Foundation for Regeneration and one of the leaders spearheading the effort to restore the forest and open it to the community. “The purpose of revitalizing it is to teach people to have more heart.”

This is why hundreds of Latter-day Saint volunteers, who were participating in a conference, set out to help revive the green oasis on that June Saturday.

“We’re reimagining and relaunching what was once there,” said Weinberg, who reached out to Just Serve, the church’s site for volunteer projects and managed to wrangle the largest group of volunteers the forest has had since it was planted.

But the forest’s story is not only about reviving a whimsical art installation — it’s also about the attention and care that it takes to sustain what was once started and reviving a community bound by the shared purpose of helping the trees thrive. “This forest — there is something quintessential about the cycle of life,” Weinberg told me. “About death and generations, and passing on the torch.”

Young single adult Latter-day Saints in Kansas City, Mo., gather at the Heart Forest to plant trees and clear trails. | Intellectual Reserve, Inc

From twigs to mature forest

On a recent June morning, armed with rakes and shovels, Cameron Jensen worked on clearing the trail leading toward the forest’s center. Jensen, a Latter-day Saint who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, shaped the trail’s borders with dead branches he found laying around. “It was really powerful to be able to think about the work that had gone into creating the forest,” said Jensen. “And the symbolism of what it means to the influence of the heart on the human body and how we need to make sure our hearts and minds are aligned with Christ and with God.” Others in the group planted 40 new trees to replace the ones that were damaged by erosion.

Berkebile welcomed hundreds of the Latter-day Saint volunteers at the forest. He’s known in the sustainable architecture community for shaping the LEED certification standards for green buildings and leading the effort to green the White House in 1994. He witnessed the very origins and the evolution of the heart forest.

Young single adult Latter-day Saints in Kansas City, Mo., gather at the Heart Forest to plant trees and clear trails. This gathering was one of three simultaneous conferences (all with the theme of “Think Celestial,” the title of a general conference talk from President Russell M. Nelson) held from Wednesday, May 29, through Saturday, June 1, 2024, for young single adults in the church’s North America Central Area. | Intellectual Reserve, Inc

In the early ‘90s, volunteer groups from schools and churches came to plant additional trees, adding new tree species and gradually expanding the forest. The community grew along with the forest — there was a newsletter called “Voice of the Forest” and an annual event called “Wild at Heart.”

These volunteers were also the stewards of the forest. When the bagworms attacked the cedar trees, Berkebile opposed the instructions of the Missouri Department of Conservation to spray the forest with chemicals. Instead, he rallied hundreds of volunteers to remove the bagworms from the trees with their hands, one by one. Other times, community members removed poison ivy and discouraged the deer from eating the crops.

When all the trees were planted, the general sentient among the group was: “Just let them grow.”

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Uncovering lost stories

There is one photo from the 1990s that Weinberg often thinks about: In it, a girl of about 6 years old, wearing red glasses and a blue headband, holds up a worm while squinting against the sunlight. “Who is she? Where is she now?” Weinberg has wondered. “I just really want to know what she’s doing right now.”

A girl who participated in the Heart Forest planting in the 1990s. | Brian Weinberg

Another photo shows a Boy Scout troop assessing the task ahead. A toddler in oversized blue gloves and a pink jacket is digging in the dirt. A billboard says: “Support the heart forest: connect the earth with the sky.”

Weinberg has been pulling boxes of documents from the garages of early volunteers from the 1990s. He’s discovered stacks of heart forest stationary, the clippings from newspapers and airline magazines, a key to an old lawn mower. Using old lists of volunteers and donors, he’s been trying to track down those who once cared for the forest. What did they remember about the early days of the forest? Did they have a good experience? These are the questions he asks when people pick up the phone.

“There are all these micro-stories I’m trying to collect and document them now,” he said.

Weinberg hopes that once the forest is more established, more early supporters will come out of the woodwork. “I can’t wait to find some of these young Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and that girl with the worm – they could be bank executives, who are they now?” said Weinberg.

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‘Each of us has a role to play’

Helping with the project was especially meaningful for Haylie Wong, another volunteer from the church group. “Our church itself is built on pioneers — something that was created decades ago (in which) we could be a part of and where each of us has a role to play.” While planting the trees and caring for them overtime is not as dramatic as Biblical miracles like the parting of the Red Sea or turning water into wine, seeing a healthy forest mature, to Wong, is a miraculous process.


“Sometimes we may feel overlooked like our efforts don’t matter — but in the long run, they make a significant difference that we may not be able to see at first,” she said. “Over time, it creates its own miracle.”

The forest is currently closed to the public, but the group has an ambitious vision for the project.

“The whole concept now is to make it a community asset — to teach those who come to have more heart,” said Weinberg. Along the trail through the forest, the group is planning to build artistic, inquiry-based stations that will guide visitors through the forest — for instance, a mirror would suggest a question for a visitor to answer while looking at their reflection. The clearing in the middle of the forest — “the heart of the heart” — will be reserved for meditation and reflection. Weinberg and Berkebile are building the stewardship council, which includes a German experience designer and a crop artist.

In the marketing deck for the project, Dwight Eisenhower’s quote echoes up the essence of the effort: “Whatever America hopes to come to pass in the world, must first come to pass in the heart of America.” And while geographically the heart of America may be found in the field of the Kansas City airport, the lasting change, the heart forest stewards believe, begins with the look inward.

Young single adult Latter-day Saints in Kansas City, Mo., hold hands around the Heart Forest. | Jodi Vander Woude
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