Trees for Life has an address, a website, and a staff, but one
could never visit the building or the website or work there to
be part of Trees for Life, most people who are part of Trees for Life never have.
I think I can only explain Trees for Life through my own experience. I came here in early 2002 with the idea that I would volunteer a few months before I started another
commitment. I had heard extraordinary accolades about the place and Balbir, and so given my nature I was fairly skeptical. Nevertheless, I supported the intent of their projects and so came planning to help make a change in the world without myself being changed.
Today I’m working at a desk made of a worn hospital door on which sits an outdated but usable computer in an old school
building rented from the city of Wichita for a few dollars each year. In a few moments I will receive a call to the kind of
simple but nutritious lunch served every day (walk-ins welcome) for which everyone is asked to pay $1 to keep us conscientious of the blessing of sustenance that not everyone has. Around me I can hear people working on a project to send books and musical instruments to community-run libraries in Nicaragua. And when I came in to Trees for Life this morning I was greeted with hugs.
So what happened between then and now? My physical trajectory is easy enough to explain: a year and a half after full-time volunteer service with Trees for Life I entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, earned my Ph.D., and am now a postdoctoral researcher there.
My internal trajectory eludes the one-sentence description… within a few weeks at Trees for Life I realized there was
something here I could find almost nowhere else in the world.
At first that ” something” was only apparent a few hours each week: in the morning circle where everyone gathers for a few minutes of silence then breaks to embrace and start the workday; and in the weekly “Who We Are” meetings in which we talk about not what we do but why we do it. That, something, grew when I saw the sacrifices everyone was making, such as business executives like Balbir and David eschewing their profession to live frugally on minimum-wage salaries or less. I saw the equality of our humanity when one day our lead programmers were asked to help dig up a broken sewer line, not for want of strong backs, but because we were all in this endeavor together. And I saw the birthday cards, the hugs, the laughter, and the friendships.
Then, one day, I saw the ” something” most directly. Walking through the hallway, I stopped to really look at the pictures I had seen so many times before. There were images of barefoot children smiling on swings, a man painfully hoisting on his back a crushing load of rocks, a colorful crowd focused intensely on planting their community’s first fruit tree… I felt the connection between them and me. I knew that the there was no difference between the people in my immediate Trees for Life family and these people, only distance separates us, and that is a meager barrier.
So now I live in California using state-of-the-art research facilities to understand the environment, but I spend my
vacations working on these worn hospital doors inside this old school. This is home. But I know even when I am not here I am part of Trees for Life, because that “something” is love.
Adam B. Smith, Ph.D.
January 4, 2011