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Wichita Eagle


Trees for Life gives apple farmer, 89, a chance to sow good will.


In September 1999, the Church of the Brethren sent a disaster relief team to help rebuild Haysville. Four months earlier, a tornado had wiped out historic buildings, homes and much of the town's Main Street.
During the weeklong stay in Kansas, the delegation from rural Washington state had been offered free lodging at a renovated school operated by Trees For Life. The Wichita-based organization helps educate and feed the world's neediest communities so its people can become self-sufficient.

While other members of the church team hammered on new roofs, installed windows and hauled away debris, one person stayed "home" to prepare meals.
"Beth was their cook and we all noticed her right away," Trees For Life staffer Phil Miller says. "She makes great cakes and she has unbelievable energy. She's just someone you don't forget."

Beth Weddle is an organic apple farmer, an accomplished trout fisher, a former resident parent at a home for troubled boys, a church youth group leader and a foster mother whose children never quite let her go.

She's also a great-great grandmother who turns 90 in May.

Every day, Beth rises before the sun to stretch along with her favorite exercise class on PBS. After exercising, she reads a few chapters of the Bible. She's on a plan to read it through in a year. At home in her orchard in rural Tonasket, Wash., Beth quilts, caters weddings, cans and freezes sugar snap peas, beets and greens and fillets the trout she catches with her son, Jerry.

When Jerry drove down to take her home after her first visit to Kansas, he noticed bicycles cluttering the hallway at Trees For Life. He fetched his tools, made a run to the hardware store and installed wall racks.
Like mother, like son.

In 1999, Beth was a woman wondering what she wanted to do. She had lost her beloved Harvey, the man she'd pledged herself to since her junior year of high school.

"I always had somebody to take care of," says Beth. "I didn't have time to just be me. After 68 years together and visiting our kids and all the grands all over the states, here I was. Just me."

Beth found her answer one day when Trees For Life founder Balbir Mathur overheard her talking.

"I will never forget that. Balbir put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. He said: 'Come back and I'll give you something to do.'"

Beth returned to Wichita for five weeks in 2000, in 2001 and again this year. Each time, she learns new skills.

To her astonishment, she has become computer literate.

"I'm on email now," she boasts with a tilt of her head and a sway of her hips. She was 88 when she sent her first email to her great-grandchildren.

"I love everything that Trees For Life is about: the fellowship, the idea of doing what you can to help and working with these young people. I guess I am slowing down some, because now I sure like that golf cart my son got me for the orchard, but there's still so much I want to do."

Growing up during the Depression meant that neither she nor Harvey could take advantage of the partial scholarships both earned.

"Harvey was the smartest person I've ever known, but the hardest thing in my life was convincing him of that. He taught himself refrigeration and put up a warehouse. Finally, he started believing in himself. I knew he could do it."

The couple tended cows, pigs and chickens and grew nearly everything they ate. She stitched her family's clothing, took in foster children and spent weekends leading the church youth group on wilderness hikes.
Holidays are simpler now. Her tabletop Christmas tree stands proudly in a vase rather than taking up a corner of the living room.

"It's a different time now, and I am enjoying it. Do you know the tulips will be up when I get home?"

Reach Sharon Hamric at 268-6351 or
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