One of the more impactful experiences of this past year was visiting a forest in Oaxaca that, twenty-five years ago, I had been a part of planting. When I had last visited this community, the mountainside had been almost completely barren.
This spring, I got to go back to that same mountainside and walk in the shade of the trees. The sound of the breeze in the branches and the scent of the pine needles made it hard to remember the sunbaked desolation we had once sweated over.
The native pines we had planted had been joined by oak and multiple understory species. Epiphytes and birds rounded out the scene. The dry wash at the bottom of the valley had become a reliable source of water with a regular stream. Most interesting though, was to listen to the testimony of the families who live there and understand how their outlook had changed. Their sense of what was possible had been transformed.
It was hard to believe this was the same place where we had put those pitiful little seedlings so many years ago. Back then, it was easy to look around at all of the problems - the hunger and the hopelessness and the barrenness, and think of them as forever problems—just the way things were.
But seeds, planted in faith and nurtured in love, can transform everything. I am talking about seeds as a metaphor here too. We don’t just plant trees. We plant hope; we plant opportunity; we plant food. We plant with the purpose of sharing God’s love.
Jesus talks about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. That seed is the smallest of seeds, yet when it grows, it becomes a tree, so the birds come and perch in its branches.
I am excited about what has been accomplished—twelve million dollars in local savings, sixty-one million trees, twelve hundred church partnerships—but that really is just the mustard seed. If we want to know the whole story, we have to come back. A frequent criticism of projects like ours is that if you return after they have ended, there is often no sign they ever existed.
But we believe the people we serve are our partners, not our projects. They do most of the work. Honestly, we are just the catalyst. People in poverty are themselves the solution, not the problem. I believe they are the greatest untapped resource on Earth.
Just like those trees we planted in Oaxaca so long ago, the real change didn’t come when we planted the seedlings. The real change began unfolding afterwards.
My long-time colleague, Bob Morikawa, told me a story of traveling through a region in Tanzania which had graduated from our program six years ago. There was a huge agricultural fair taking place. Several thousand people were present. There were booths selling farm tools, outside vendors, and demonstrations of fish farming.
To his surprise, he learned this was put on by a local organization, which had been formed by twenty of our graduated Purpose Groups. They had continued to be the engine for change, growth, and possibility, despite the fact we were long gone.
We have found the same phenomenon around the world.
This spring for the first time, an entire watershed, the Huay Lu watershed in Thailand, graduated after having completed all of our training. That has not stopped them from planting trees and participating in restoration work, as they recently shared in a series of photos and videos they sent us.
Again in Oaxaca, I visited a local volunteer group. They took me to their tree nursery and began to tell me about the Biblical mandate for taking care of God’s creation, starting with Genesis 2:15. At first I didn’t think much of it—it is the kind of thing we talk about all the time—then I realized this knowledge had genuinely become a part of the community. It had been internalized and passed down to a new generation, and they were sharing it with me as if I were hearing it for the first time.
In Haiti, in the absence of effective government, Purpose Groups are coming together to repair bridges and build roads. A few years ago, in a very remote corner of Haiti, the president of one Purpose Group took me to a community center which three groups had built together, and from which they had recently coordinated hurricane relief efforts, organizing repairs and distributing food and supplies to their neighbors.
In several countries, Purpose Groups have gone so far as to legally incorporate, either becoming for-profit businesses or nonprofits which can directly apply for local grants and government funding. These Groups for Local Development, made up of one or more Purpose Groups, have sponsored the electrification of two communities in the Dominican Republic, and in another, the construction of an aqueduct, bringing in clean water for the first time.
Seeds we plant are only the beginning. If planted well, they have the power to change history. We are literally writing a different future together with our partners, and not just for the local community, but for ourselves and our planet as well.
Our CEO, Scott Sabin, often speaks about planting seeds of hope, indicating that incredible change can emerge from the seemingly small. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Woodard, the founder of Plant With Purpose, about how one seed of hope ignited a wave of transformation for more than half a million people worldwide. This is the story of how Plant With Purpose began.
SW: Tell us about the beginnings of Plant With Purpose?
TW: In 1980, my wife, Teresa, and I began our journey as volunteers with an organization called Food for the Hungry International. We initially planned to go to Peru, but due to disruptions caused by a guerrilla group, we were redirected to the Dominican Republic.
SW: What was it like when you arrived in the Dominican Republic?
TW: It was quite a turn of events. We found ourselves in the Dominican Republic, where a hurricane had caused widespread devastation. The small town of San Jose de Ocoa was severely affected, and we saw the grim aftermath. Poverty had driven the local population to resort to tree cutting as their primary means of survival.
SW: Can you share how you decided to take action and what inspired your approach?
TW: My love for plants played a significant role in our decision to take action. I noticed that there was a fast-growing tree species native to San Jose de Ocoa, and despite challenges with Dominican Customs, I managed to bring in 30,000 seeds. With permission, we revitalized a nursery, planted the seeds in 30,000 plastic bags, and watched as over 20,000 seedlings germinated. Teresa and I, along with other volunteers, planted many of these seedlings ourselves.
SW: What impact did your efforts have on the community?
TW: Our impact was profound. Even though our volunteer commitment initially extended by two months, we left behind a flourishing legacy. When we returned to the region 2.5 years later, the trees we had planted had grown to towering heights of over 40 feet, resembling the density of mahogany.
SW: Did you notice the impact of trees on the local environment?
TW: Yes. These trees not only provided valuable resources but also had multiple environmental benefits. They stabilized the soil, replenished groundwater and nutrients, and released water vapor into the air, influencing local microclimates. They also offered habitat for wildlife, making several ecological contributions.
SW: What motivated you to take this initiative to the next level and establish a nonprofit organization?
TW: The encouragement of my friend Jeff Dowler played a significant role in taking our mission further. On July 1, 1984, we founded Floresta, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making a difference in the lives of small mountain farmers by promoting sustainable agroforestry. This decision was a culmination of our passion and determination to make a positive impact.
Establishing the nonprofit organization was not an easy task. It involved a lot of hard work, from raising funds to assembling boards of directors in both the United States and the Dominican Republic. We had to make thorough preparations for the launch of our mission.
SW: How do you feel about Plant With Purpose’s current legacy?
TW: Plant With Purpose continues to thrive and expand its reach. It plants seeds of hope and transformation in communities around the world, much like what I started four decades ago. Our organization remains dedicated to making a positive change in the lives of small mountain farmers through reforestation and sustainable agriculture.
SW: What message would you like to share with our community?
TW: I would like to emphasize that one person's determination can indeed make a significant and lasting impact on the world. The journey from volunteering in the Dominican Republic to founding an organization that empowers communities is a testament to the power of unwavering faith and dedication. We all have the potential to bring about positive change, and I encourage everyone to take that first step toward making a difference.
As I stand on the precipice of retirement, I find myself reflecting on the remarkable journey I have undertaken over the years, working in tandem with the dedicated team at Plant With Purpose. This journey has taken me through the landscapes of Oaxaca Mixteca and introduced me to various transformative projects spanning across the diverse tapestry of Mexico. It has been a journey of self-discovery, growth, and a profound understanding of the intricate bond that exists between humanity and the environment.
Throughout my tenure with the Plant With Purpose Mexico partner, Misión Integral, I have had the privilege of learning to observe, listen, contemplate, and interpret not just the captivating beauty of nature but also the intricate organizational structure of the communities that inhabit these regions. It has been a journey marked by humility, curiosity, and an unwavering commitment to making a positive impact.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my work has been the opportunity to engage with schools and nursery committees, where I have had the privilege of emphasizing the importance of native species in our regions. Witnessing the eagerness and potential within individuals to comprehend and actively participate in the processes of seedling development within nurseries has been truly inspiring. Moreover, seeing the dedication and perseverance of those involved in soil preparation and reforestation efforts has reinforced my belief in the extraordinary capacity of humanity.
It became abundantly clear that, just as nature itself is a creation of a higher power, we too are bestowed with a spirit of service, a passion for work, and an unwavering dedication to achieving our goals. Through the projects championed by Misión Integral/Plant With Purpose, we have collectively shed the shackles of negativity, embracing our calling to be stewards of the environment and champions of sustainable change.
I firmly believe that the seeds of change are sown within people's hearts, and it is our duty to nurture and cultivate these seeds. This mission extends beyond the boundaries of Oaxaca; it encompasses communities in various states, echoing the remarkable work being carried out in Puebla and Chiapas. The integration and participation of communities in the preservation and recovery of their environment is a testament to the power of collective effort and shared responsibility.
I extend my heartfelt gratitude to my dear international Plant With Purpose family for the mission and vision that has taken root around the world. It is through the collaboration, dedication, and unwavering commitment of individuals and communities that we can work hand in hand with nature to restore and protect our precious planet. This journey has reinforced my belief in the boundless potential of humanity and the extraordinary capacity we possess to create a sustainable and harmonious world.
Eduardo Lopez Cortes, affectionately known as Lalo, has been the heart of our Plant With Purpose team in Mexico. As our Project Coordinator, he provides invaluable technical support to local farmers, imparting knowledge and skills for the cultivation of native plants within the watershed. Through his leadership, Eduardo fosters community-driven reforestation efforts, elevating living conditions and environmental health. With over 35 years of experience in environmental and natural resources, he's left an undeniable mark, contributing to improved livelihoods of farmers across Mexico.
One of the things I love about the Plant With Purpose origin story is that we started in the Dominican Republic. It all began with Tom Woodard, our founder, and a group of dedicated development practitioners, both Dominican and American. They shared a common belief in the intrinsic connection between poverty and the environment, sowing the seed for the impactful movement we are today. Interestingly, the establishment of our U.S. office came as a response to the promising developments taking place in the Dominican Republic. This origin story sheds light on the driving force behind our work—the needs, ideas, and unwavering energy of farmers.
I recall a poignant moment in Haiti when our team engaged in a conversation with a local farmer. We found ourselves perched on a steep hillside, a terrain so rugged that simply maintaining a comfortable stance was a challenge. In that dialogue, the farmer passionately described his efforts in tree planting and implementing soil conservation measures, substantial investments in the very piece of sloping land he called his farm. Sadly, his uphill neighbors hadn't followed suit, and when heavy rains poured down, the water cascaded downhill, erasing all the commendable work he had painstakingly undertaken. The despair etched across his face and the somber tone of his voice resonated deeply with all of us present.
He went on to share a crucial piece of wisdom: our endeavors wouldn't yield significant impact unless we fostered collaboration within the community. Neighbors needed to unite to combat erosion effectively. That conversation and the farmer's sagacious counsel left an indelible mark on both the Haitian and U.S. teams. It was a vital lesson that transcended borders, echoing in the experiences of many others within our global network.
Today, the vision of those farmers has transformed into a tangible reality. Our approach is methodical, rooted in the organization, planning, and measurement of our work according to watersheds. Across the globe, Plant With Purpose teams bring farming communities together, encouraging them to plant trees, shield the soil from erosion, and champion regenerative farming methods. No farmer needs to weather the storm alone.
This anecdote is just one of countless instances where farmers serve as the driving force behind our achievements. Their wisdom and dedication inspire us daily, propelling us toward a future where thriving farms and vibrant ecosystems coexist harmoniously.
This is just one example—there are so many—of how farmers are really the engine and inspiration of our success.
With 26 years at Plant With Purpose, Bob Morikowa has been a cornerstone in the execution of our international programs. His name resonates through the stories of our legacy, as he was often the first to hit the ground, collaborating with farmers and laying the foundation for our triumphant initiatives. Today, Bob leads our Innovation Lab, where he collaborates with farmers and team members worldwide to cultivate the tools, knowledge, and processes essential for addressing environmental and economic challenges.
At Plant With Purpose we are blessed with longevity. Many of our overseas program and North American staff, as well as board members and funding partners, have been a part of our work for decades. We may do so for different reasons—we resonate deeply with our mission, we respect our leadership, and/or we see that we are making a difference in the lives of others—it feels good to be part of a dynamic and growing organization where we are able to contribute.
Shortly after I started working at Plant With Purpose in 2008, I had the opportunity to visit the Dominican Republic (DR) with my parents, our CEO Scott, and several other of our U.S. staff. When we arrived we also met Don and Doris Adrian, who were instrumental in our founding, both in the DR and in the United States. At the time they were in declining health, and didn’t talk much, but their tremendous influence on our organization was apparent. They knew everyone and had a profound knowledge of our work. They devoted a tremendous amount of the last thirty years of their lives to shape who we are today. Every year at the gala we present The Don and Doris Adrian Award for Exceptional Volunteer Service in their honor and as a testament to their legacy. The gift the Adrian’s left to Plant With Purpose in their will made it possible for us to expand our work into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia.
On that same trip to the Dominican Republic I also met Eugenio, who had, and still has, the distinction of being the longest serving member of our staff. I’ve had the opportunity to talk a lot with Eugenio recently, and it’s clear that he sees his role as much more than a job: it’s a calling, a community, and a mission where he’s chosen to invest a huge part of his life. We joked a little bit about our first meeting with my parents, also, and my dad’s trip to the emergency room.
It’s been 15 years for me already at Plant With Purpose, but that’s outpaced by many long-serving team members. When I think about the dedication of people like Eugenio, or Luis and Evelin in Mexico, Jamlong in Thailand, or Richard in Tanzania, I feel so privileged, and it really motivates me to do the best I can in my own work. I have an opportunity to leave a legacy, too. Of course, our partner farmers around the world, when we talk with them, share the same kind of story. They are planting for the future, not just to improve their lives but to give their children and grandchildren a better life. They also share a vision for their community and region, the world they hope to leave better than they found it.
The same is true of many of you who continue to invest your time, prayer, and financial resources in Plant With Purpose’s work, and who have for many years. You truly are leaving a legacy. Our partner farmers, when we have the opportunity to meet them, always ask us to thank you for making our work possible. All of us are privileged to have a role in a dynamic partnership, with God and with each other, that is leaving a lasting legacy. Thank you for your partnership in our work.
For 15 years, Doug Satre has been an invaluable asset to Plant With Purpose, serving as our Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships. In his role, Doug represents our mission by forging connections with foundations, businesses, and other organizations, creating a strong support network for our work to flourish. Through these strategic partnerships, he plays a pivotal role in our journey toward achieving our goals. Doug's passion lies in the art of building bridges between our mission and the visions of other organizations, enabling collective progress.
This summer, I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that will remain forever etched in my memory. I had the incredible opportunity to join Cindy Outlaw on a challenging climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. As we journeyed through those eight days, the climb was not just about conquering a mountain, it was a testament to Cindy's extraordinary legacy and her pivotal role in bringing Plant With Purpose to Tanzania.
Cindy's deep love for Tanzania truly left a lasting impression on all of us. Her journey to Tanzania began when she was in her mid-20s, as she joined a Sierra Club mountaineering course to enhance her hiking skills. Her connection was solidified with her husband in 2000 when they decided to take on the challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. It was during this climb that her Tanzanian guide spoke of his village and invited Cindy and her husband to visit. Little did she know, this invitation would become the catalyst for an incredible transformation. Just one year later, Cindy led a group of twelve students from Point Loma Nazarene University to the same village to build a school, and it was there that the seeds of transformation were sown.
As Cindy spent time in the village, she couldn't ignore the harsh realities faced by its inhabitants. Malnutrition was a heartbreaking issue, the land was severely deforested, and employment opportunities were scarce, leaving the community with economic challenges. It was at this pivotal moment that Cindy recalled a conversation with Scott Sabin, Plant With Purpose's CEO, about the work that Plant With Purpose was doing in Latin America, and felt it was just what Tanzania needed. Upon returning to the United States, Cindy wasted no time in reaching out to Scott to share her powerful experiences in Tanzania. She described the people's struggles, their unwavering spirit, and the potential for transformation that lay within their community. Scott's response was a resounding, "I've been waiting for this call." Cindy's passion and dedication were an answer to a prayer for Plant With Purpose.
After months of planning and securing board approvals, Cindy, Scott, and Bob Morikawa embarked on a journey to Tanzania, where the local residents eagerly anticipated their arrival. The challenges ahead were daunting, but Cindy's unwavering faith and determination continued to inspire us all. One thing I remember from my conversation with Cindy is when she drew parallels with the biblical story of Gideon, who triumphed in battle with a small army, guided by divine support. She reminded us that even though Plant With Purpose was small in size, our faith and determination could lead to remarkable achievements. Today, Tanzania is one of our largest and most robust programs. With programs in eight subwatersheds reaching over 64,028 people.
Cindy Outlaw's legacy shines as a symbol of hope, transformation, and empowerment. Her love for Tanzania not only brought Plant With Purpose's support to its people but also expanded the organization's reach, profoundly impacting rural farmers. Through her unwavering dedication, Cindy demonstrated that a passionate group can overcome daunting challenges, planting seeds of transformation that continue to bear fruit to this day.
My trip with Cindy was her 17th time to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. As I reflect on my journey with Cindy up the mountain, I am reminded that love, faith, and determination can conquer any obstacle. Cindy's legacy serves as a testament to the power of compassion and action in transforming lives and creating a more equitable future for communities in need. She continues to be an advocate for Plant With Purpose, planning trips and taking donors and staff members on her awe-inspiring climbs up the mountain, so they too can discover the same love for Tanzania and its people as she does. Cindy Outlaw's story is one of inspiration, reminding us all that we have the capacity to make a lasting impact on the world through our unwavering commitment to a cause greater than ourselves.
Plant With Purpose is proud to honor the legacy of Milmer Martinez Vergara as he takes on the role of Vice President of International Programs. Over the course of 16 years, Milmer has left an indelible mark on the organization, expanding its reach and influence across Latin America and the Caribbean. His legacy is one of dedication, visionary leadership, and transformative impact.
Milmer’s journey with Plant With Purpose began with an undergraduate degree in biology, reflecting his early passion for the natural world. Over time, he pursued a graduate degree in Behavioral Ecology and Conservation Genetics, a testament to his dedication to understanding and conserving our environment. This unique blend of scientific knowledge and experience in development has been instrumental in fulfilling Plant With Purpose’s mission to restore natural ecosystems and build resilient rural communities.
At the heart of Milmer’s legacy is the development and implementation of the Watershed Model, a groundbreaking initiative that has redefined the way Plant With Purpose achieves its mission. This model has enabled our organization to multiply our impact, simultaneously uplifting communities from poverty while restoring and preserving the environment. Milmer’s innovative thinking and strategic vision have shaped a legacy that will continue to inspire positive change for generations to come.
His legacy will always stand as a testament to the power of one individual to create meaningful and lasting change. His work has not only strengthened Plant With Purpose but also created a legacy that inspires us all to strive for a better, more sustainable world. As Milmer takes on his new role as Vice President of International Programs, he carries with him the weight of a remarkable legacy, one that will continue to drive our organization’s mission to create a more sustainable and resilient future.
“I am humbled by the opportunity to co-develop with our global partners a future and a process where we reach all nations and all peoples. Our work is more critical and needed than ever, and we believe that we have the moral imperative of expanding our mission and facilitating positive change in the lives and natural ecosystems that sustain them.” -Milmer Martinez Vergara
As one of the newest staff members at Plant With Purpose, I am acutely aware of the rich legacy that has been flourishing here for nearly four decades. The profound impact of Plant With Purpose's work became evident to me from my very first day on the job. Yet, what truly distinguishes this organization, and where its brilliance shines most brightly, is in its meticulous attention to data.
It is not merely that we possess a robust theory of change; it is our unwavering commitment to data-driven practices supporting that theory that sets us apart. This approach is the cornerstone of our ability to adapt, evolve, and continually improve our model. Our journey is characterized by a relentless pursuit of understanding, and the data we collect serves as our compass. I would also say we have a secret weapon in our listening approach, allowing us to decipher the insights hidden within the data we gather. We navigate the project cycle with precision, making necessary adjustments and enhancements along the way.
In my new role as the Director of Development Operations, I am positioned to contribute greatly to the Plant With Purpose legacy. Collaborating with a team of dedicated data professionals and grant writers, I witness firsthand the transformative power of data. One compelling example is our ability to demonstrate a significant reduction in hunger within our partner watersheds. Hunger, one of the most devastating consequences of multidimensional poverty, is being confronted head-on. Through the data we gather, we can assert with confidence that participants in Plant With Purpose programs are no longer hungry. This data empowers us to learn, adapt, and refine our initiatives, making them more effective and impactful.
Plant With Purpose's legacy extends beyond tree planting and sustainable agriculture. It is the legacy of building a global community of Christians deeply committed to stewarding God's creation. Central to our legacy is an unwavering dedication to partnership. Each smallholder farmer, staff member, board member, and donor plays a significant and vital role in our mission. We foster an ethos of equality and active listening, valuing the inherent dignity of every individual.