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Living the Question

LL Sum 2008 01

I lived my life as a statement, until I met someone whose life asked a question.

Back when my life was a statement, I appeared to “have it made.” I had a successful career, family, financial security… all that I had been told would bring true happiness. So why wasn’t I truly happy?

Advances in communication had brought the world into my home, and in 1985 I witnessed the horror of thousands of children in Ethiopia dying from starvation. Having children of my own, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What would it feel like to watch my own
children die because they had nothing to eat? What would I do?”

I had learned that we possessed the ability to feed everyone in the world, but simply lacked the willpower to make it happen. A popular song that year tugged
at my heart:

We are the world,
We are the children,
We are the ones who make a brighter day ...

This song touched me very deeply…so deeply that my question changed from “What would I do?” to “What can I do?”

It was that year that I met a friend of a friend named Balbir Mathur, who spoke about something called “Trees for Life.” A few days after our meeting I received a call from Balbir, asking if I knew someone who could stitch together some green aprons for a St. Patrick’s Day parade. That “someone” turned out to be me, and thus began my enduring relationship with
Trees for Life. Over time, I saw that Balbir lived his life as a question. My life as a statement ended, and I began to ask the same question: “How may I serve?”

Now it is 21 years later. I am visiting a small community called Tisma in Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Having left behind the lucrative position and financial security, I have dedicated the past 21 years to a life of service and sacrifice, serving the poorest of the poor through Trees for Life. Working to end world hunger by empowering people to help themselves.

And yet…here I am in Tisma, where a full day of very hard labor pays about one dollar, if you are lucky enough to have a job. Where tiny shacks with dirt floors are the norm. Where the few children lucky enough to go to school have no books at all. Where poverty, malnutrition and sickness are still running rampant.

After all these years, I cannot help asking myself some very difficult questions: Have my years of service really made any difference? Did I make the right decision all those years ago? Have I only wasted my time?

It is true there have been changes in Tisma and other communities in the Trees for Life family: schools have been built, fuel-efficient cook stoves have been constructed, fruit trees have been planted. But is it enough? Has it really made a dent in the massive human suffering brought about by poverty?

Then one day in Tisma, as I am watching Balbir
demonstrate how to dig a water-holding basin at the base of a fruit tree, my attention is distracted by the sound of music. The song seems familiar, and I begin to hum along. But where is it coming from?

LL Sum 2008 02

I follow the sound to the doorway of a nearby hut. Inside, a rare TV is playing a music video that takes
my breath away:

We are the world,
We are the children,
We are the ones who make a brighter day ...

Suddenly a flood of emotion comes over me. I am transported back to my old life, to my life as a statement—a statement of success and security, of having “made it” in the eyes of the world. Tears flow down my cheeks as I see myself as I was back then, before my life of service.

Feeling now what I felt back then, the sense of separation from others is palpable and depressing. The sense of hopelessness is brutally painful. The gnawing need for a deeper purpose is overpowering.

Suddenly all my questions are answered, as they were answered when I first came to Trees for Life.

It is not about changing the world . . . it is about loving the world. It is about offering a hand so that others may live, and offering my heart so that I may live. The change that the world truly needs is the change in me, the opening of my heart. The tears continue to flow, but now they are tears of joy. I feel such deep gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

And now, among the many questions that my life has
become, there is one thing that I know for sure: the evidence of my success is not that the world has changed, but that I have.

LL Sum 2008 09

The glow of knowledge reflects on the young faces of children who, until very recently, had never even seen a book. Libraries created with help from Trees for Life are opening up new worlds of learning for children in Tisma, Nicaragua and around the world.

Image 2136

Maximizing resources: Farmers in Tisma are learning how small actions can make a big difference. Trees for Life president Balbir Mathur shows how digging a simple basin to hold water around the base of a young tree makes the most of this increasingly precious resource.

Boy watering fruit tree

Growing the future, a child takes pride in caring for a fruit tree that will feed generations to come. The lessons learned will extend into other areas of his life, benefiting his family, his community and, ultimately, the whole planet.

LL Sum 2008 07


LL Sum 2008 06

Hope abounds as people discover they have the power to bring wonderful, enduring changes to their community. Joy is the main by-product of working together to improve lives.

LL Sum 2008 03

Beautiful creations arise even in the midst of heartbreaking poverty. This mural, lovingly painted on the side of their new library, speaks volumes about the spirit of the citizens of Tisma and the value they place on their children's education.

LL Sum 2008 08