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Visit to Trees for Life headquarters in Wichita, Kansas


I run a small charity in the UK called The Berkeley Reafforestation Trust. We specialise in supporting tree planting and environmental education in the developing world. It was in this connection that I learned of Trees for Life (TFL) and Balbir Mathur, founder of Trees for Life.


I run a small charity in the UK called The Berkeley Reafforestation Trust. We specialise in supporting tree planting and environmental education in the developing world. It was in this connection that I learned of Trees for Life (TFL) and Balbir Mathur, founder of Trees for Life.

In our subsequent meeting, Balbir told me that "TFL is a movement not an organisation." It was difficult to understand that point, until my wife and I visited India in November 1998 and saw the wonderful-might I say, miraculous-work of the TFL volunteers. There, I experienced the extraordinary dedication of volunteers-people giving of themselves, from their hearts, and effecting change through their service.

After that experience in India, I was eager to find out how this volunteer principle could hold up in Wichita, Kansas. As the centre of operations, surely it would inevitably fall prey to the curses of bureaucracy. So I made a trip to Wichita, to participate in and observe their activities.

How Trees For Life Wichita Works

After spending 10 days in Wichita, I can say that Trees for Life is truly a volunteer movement. There are three categories of people who serve at TFL in Wichita:

Community Volunteers

These are the bedrock of TFL-be they in Wichita, India or Guatemala. They are the people out there in the community serving for the sake of service. Many are employed elsewhere and give of their free time. Others are retirees, housewives, college students or schoolchildren. They receive no material reward and have no status conferred upon them by TFL; they do, however, radiate pleasure in their service.

Community volunteers that I met during my visit included a carpenter who had helped with the remodelling of the TFL building, children who were lending a hand in the shipping and packaging room, a minister who had written a musical about TFL, and a woman who helps with local office work.

Full-time Volunteers

These are typically bright young people who come because they believe that there is something more to life than climbing the corporate ladder. But there are older volunteers, too-a retired banker and his wife who divide their time between Wichita and Allahabad, India spring to mind. These resident volunteers live in a community known as the Tree House and receive food, lodging and pocket money.

Full-time volunteers come for a few months to a maximum of four years, after which they join the staff or move on. Theirs is a total commitment-a commitment which is constantly challenged by the requirement that they justify their ongoing presence to the group at large. They have no certainty of overseas travel to TFL project areas and commit themselves to doing whatever is necessary. They have a calling.


The staff comprises mainly of full-time volunteers who have stayed on, although there are also a number of part-timers. Staff are few in number and draw a subsistence income. There are no career ladders, salary "differentials," nor territories to defend.

In the above context the staff can, I believe, be truly described as volunteers. They could earn about as much behind the counter at MacDonald's.

It was obvious that these people are there because they choose to serve-TFL is not there to serve them. Or to put it in other words, if a person wishes to serve, TFL will provide that person with a platform.

Service in action

During my short stay I witnessed a few examples of how all this service translates into action.

Office remodelling

TFL now occupies a large, unused school building which the school board leased to them for $10 a year. Architects were quoting $500,000 for remodelling, but TFL decided to make this remodelling a demonstration of community involvement and service.

Businesses donated surplus building materials, while hundreds of local volunteers converted those materials into a remodelled office and residential area. Supplies and people miraculously arrived just as they were needed, often without even a request.

For example, a hospital provided dozens of surplus doors. Local boy scouts and their parents converted these doors into office partitions and desk surfaces throughout the building. An electrical company, over-stretched with contracts during a building boom, chose to forsake profit and rewire the building as a gift. A generous offer to underwrite the cost of hiring a plumber was turned down because the need was for a plumber?not the cash! A plumber emerged who did the work gratis.

You might well imagine a somewhat hodgepodge, hit and miss remodelling job, but not a bit of it. The work has all been beautifully and imaginatively executed. Visit TFL and you will be struck by all of this.


Another example of the power of volunteer service can be seen in how TFL produced an animated film to communicate to people in developing countries the health benefits of eating drumstick tree leaves. For the price of making a film commercially, they decided instead to learn how to animate and produce such films themselves. Now they can continue to replicate the process and teach others in developing countries.

One of the foremost animators in the world, the two-time Academy Award-winning Frédéric Back, who animated the classic "The Man who Planted Trees," emerged and taught the people at TFL how to create low-cost paper cut-out animation. Frédéric Back, who could not have been hired for any fee, shared his talents freely because he felt moved to do so. A minor miracle, but one of many that happen at TFL all the time.

What goes on at TFL Wichita

I have concentrated on the volunteer principle that inspires TFL because I believe an understanding of this is paramount in coming to grips with how the movement works. Now let's look more closely at what goes on there.

TFL Wichita is a laboratory for ideas-ideas which may or may not come to fruition and lead to implementation in the field. My visit coincided with a four-week workshop on paper cut-out animation. This workshop would take forward Frédéric Back's teaching and explore how it can be used by people in developing countries to educate the poorest of the poor.

The thinking was that animation, a tool that delivers messages in a way that transcends language and culture, might have a part to play in enabling communities in the developing world to produce their own educational materials-cheaply and in a form that speaks to them and addresses their particular needs.

A French animator who works with street children in Mexico came to Wichita to work with the TFL Wichita team, local schoolchildren and visiting local and foreign artists. Parallel experimentation in creating such educational materials is taking place in a school in Allahabad, India under the TFL umbrella.

Along with ongoing liaison with projects in the field in Guatemala, India, Haiti, Bolivia, Philippines, Cambodia and other countries, TFL Wichita acts as a focal center for ideas, initiatives and networking in a range of development issues. No one can guess what the next day will bring. There might be a letter from a band of young musicians in Washington wishing to establish a TFL support group. There could be an email from a surgeon at an eye hospital in India wishing to provide an interactive computer program in his waiting room which gives information on hygiene and the most common eye disorders. A researcher in Philippines may be reporting back on a microbe culture from cow manure to enhance soil fertility in degraded lands.

A day in the life with TFL

The day starts at 8:30 a.m. in the meditation room. Volunteers and staff have been arriving there over the previous half hour or so for a period of quiet reflection. There is a short act of communal celebration followed by a discussion of the day's activities and an allocation of tasks. Today arrangements need to be made for a group of supporters from the local Optimists Club who are joining us for lunch-preparation of meals is done on a rotation basis. There is a person to be picked up at the airport. We are updated on progress of the animated video which is being made during the workshop, and are organised into shifts to help with processing the photography on computer software. We then disperse-some of us to the animation "studio" upstairs, others to our individual workstations in the general office.

I found the period of calm and reflection on arrival at work immensely rewarding. Instead of pitching straight into opening mail, logging on and collecting email and starting where one left off the day before, the period of reflection ensured a sense of calm and perspective. The office is high-tech, and is the one area in which money has clearly been spent, although I would not be surprised to discover that most all the computers and office machinery had been donated by some company!

The day passes busily but peacefully. We all meet up at lunch time for a simple self-service meal. Today we welcome the Optimists, who have recently donated a lawn mower to keep the surrounding seven-acre plot in shape. They have a particular interest in this gift, as it is they who provide the volunteers to mow the grass!

TFL's office is run on open and democratic lines. All decisions are discussed in meetings. Significant mail coming into and going out of the office is passed around for comments and suggestions.

Today I have helped frame a project proposal involving the search for an experienced director of educational films-someone who would volunteer their time and expertise to participate in the making of an educational film in India. The proposal must strike the right note and accurately reflect the philosophy and thinking of TFL. The document is circulated to everyone on internal email, which results in important editing and additions. This process has the added benefit of ensuring a further period of reflection by the writer before ideas are committed to paper and the post office.

The day ends around 6:00 p.m., although this week, with deadlines to meet on the animation work, staff and volunteers are sometimes working through to midnight. Those living in the Tree House have their evening meal together in the kitchen, while I and others return to the community outside.
The end of another fascinating, happy and fulfilling day at TFL.

A movement

Having had the opportunity to know numerous development agencies over the years, I am struck by how TFL differs from all of them. It is, I believe, in these differences that its achievements and enduring potential lie.

I have come to appreciate that spiritual movements?movements from the heart?have the power to effect profound change in a way that most philanthropic organisations cannot aspire to, however honourable their motives and however much "good" they do.

At Trees for Life I experienced one such movement . . . people feeling moved to do things, leading by example.