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Can You Go Back?

In 2006 I had the privilege of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Kili 2006
2006 Summit

It was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had.

Kilimanjaro climbs are done with the support of a huge array of porters, cooks and guides. In 2006, a team of 32 support staff, many of whom come from the same communities where Plant With Purpose works, accompanied our group of 8 people. There was something about the grandeur of the mountain, the camaraderie, the epic scale of the expedition and just a touch of real adventure that made it a very special time.

I remember the mounting sense of anticipation as day after day the mountain landscape got wilder and as I wondered whether I would have what it took to make it that final day, beyond nineteen thousand feet to the legendary Roof of Africa. Then came the growing feeling of accomplishment as it became clear I would in fact make it. Finally we came out on the rim of the crater into the midst of a storm and blowing frost that turned our windward sides white.

I have spent a lot of time over the past 12 years telling my children just how amazing it was. The climb up Kilimanjaro has been the subject of numerous dinner-time tales on backpacking trips through the years. At the same time, they have been begging me to visit Tanzania and see the work that Plant With Purpose is doing.

This summer it all came together, so this afternoon I find myself in Moshi, with my daughter, Amanda, 17, and my son, Danny, 14, preparing to start up Kilimanjaro in the morning.

CIMG5317Danny & Amanda on an earlier expedition.

A substantial group joins us, including eight Tanzanian primary and high school students and their chaperones, and Cindy Outlaw, the chair of the Plant With Purpose board, who will be making her 13th trip to the summit. If all goes well we should summit on the 23rd and sometime after the 26th I will be able to give an update as to whether or not one can actually go back.

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What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

Scott A FrameIn January, I passed a major milestone.

Twenty-five years ago, I first started working at Plant With Purpose. At the time, I never imagined that I would stay in one job for so long. It was a temporary job, part-time actually, and I was hoping to get some experience while I looked for something else.

It was exciting to get a foot in the door with an organization that served the poor and in a place where I could use my Spanish language skills. However, the environmental aspects of the work were not something that I was particularly excited about. Nonetheless, living in San Diego, I did not have a lot of organizations to choose from. Thus, my connection to Christian environmental stewardship is an accident of geography as much as anything else. However, as I learned about the intimate connection between the land and those who depend on it for their daily sustenance, I have grown passionate about the urgent need to care for the earth that God has entrusted to us. In a very short period of time I realized that I would not be happy working for an organization that didn’t address stewardship of the land as a key part of its mission.

Still, twenty-five years is a long time. I frequently get asked how I could stay in the same job for so long, and how I keep from getting burned out.

The answer to the first question is that the organization has changed dramatically since 1993, and every few years I have had to adapt my job to match and lead through the next stage of growth. In the early days, I was the Program Manager (actually Interim Program Manager for the first six months) so I handled much of the direct liaison with our field partners. As one of only two employees, I also did things like stuff envelopes, buy our first computers and fix the printer when it wasn’t working. And on the side I began reading everything I could about Christian ministry, nonprofit management, ecology, and community development. I also began reaching out to my peers to learn all I could from them.

As we began to grow, or rather when I saw that we weren’t growing, I realized that I had a very important role in fundraising. I fought that change for a long time – too long – until I began to understand that fundraising is ministry too. We hired people with expertise in international development who were far more skilled at program development and working with our international partners, so I took on more of a management role and my international travel diminished significantly. More recently, as we expanded beyond a support base primarily centered in Southern California and hired Regional Representatives, my domestic travel has grown to fill in the gap. Finally, as we have broadened our fundraising capacity, I have had the opportunity to take on more speaking and writing opportunities, and think more about the vision and strategy of Plant With Purpose in the years ahead. Each of these shifts has involved new learning and new challenges, keeping the job fresh.

As to what keeps me going, a couple of answers come to mind. The testimonies of the people we serve and the privilege of seeing God at work in the world has been a huge factor. Amazing things are happening. Another is the fact that we keep getting better at what we do. We have a commitment to accurate measurement of our impact and to continuous improvement. As a result, what we are doing to change lives today is much more effective than it was ten or even three years ago. Furthermore, we have learned how to do it in a way that is scalable. Half of all the trees we have ever planted have been planted in the last four years. We have doubled the number of people we are serving in the last three years with relatively little increase in budget. Personally, I am more excited today than I have ever been, because I can quantify our work and see the change.

Throughout the last twenty-five years I have made shocking mistakes, gained valuable lessons, and realized that what we do is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. All the while, the world we work in continues to change. I am hoping to take some time this spring to reflect on some of these lessons, changes and even mistakes, as well as remember some of the people who have made this work possible.

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Milestones

On the other side of Hispaniola, we celebrated 20 years of working together. It seems like only yesterday that Eldon Garcia and I drove from Santo Domingo to Port au Prince, then up into the mountains of Haiti for the first time. We got hopelessly lost, before finally arriving in Cherident, where our principal office sits today. Just getting there seemed nothing short of a miracle, but God intervened in several other ways as well, and what had started as a lark became a firm commitment to make a difference in Haiti.

Nonetheless, I knew from day one that we were in over our heads, and the more I asked for advice the less confident I felt. However, again perhaps miraculously, Pere Albert, the episcopal priest who had extended the initial invitation, connected us to some very competent and creative local people.

Jean-Marie Desilus (Dezo) was the first of these, and very soon after, he brought in Guy Paraison to help launch a local program in Haiti. Both of these gentlemen still work with us today, and I have learned a tremendous amount from both of them.

Bob interviewing candidates
Bob Morikawa interviewing candidatesSigning initial contractsHiring Jean Marie Desilus as first Director of Floresta HaitiDezo hiring 1997

At the same time, Martin Price at ECHO suggested Bob Morikawa, who had run the ECHO farm in Haiti, might be able to help us get started. I called Bob at his home in Toronto and hired him over the phone to come to Haiti with me. Twenty years later he works full time with Plant With Purpose and in addition to Haiti, has helped to start programs in Tanzania, Burundi and Congo.

I didn’t yet know the depth of the talent that we had assembled, so my expectations were low. Bob told me that he would be happy if a few farmers learned how to use grafting knives and their families ate just a little better as a result. I was inclined to agree. That would be success.

Our first initiative was to offer a two-year program in sustainable agriculture in a local vocational school with a curriculum that Dezo created. Although there was only ever one graduating class, several of the graduates are on staff today, helping people throughout Haiti to grow more food, become more resilient, and restore the health of their land.

Vocational School Grad

Twenty years later, of course, those initial expectations have been exceeded many times over. Nearly 52,000 people are participating in the work. Three hundred twenty-four savings groups allowed people to save hundreds of thousands of dollars prior to Hurricane Matthew, making them far more able to cope with crop loss and farm damage. Furthermore the reforestation and soil conservation work they had invested in meant that they suffered less crop damage in the first place. It was amazing to see how quickly people have gotten back on their feet.

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Transitions

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic to celebrate a couple of milestones.

In the Dominican Republic I bade farewell to two of our longest serving employees, and welcomed another to a position of leadership.

Carlos Disla, who has been the director of our local partner, Floresta Incorporada for the last fourteen years, retires having led the organization through tremendous growth and change. When Carlos became director, we were serving about 350 families in the central Dominican Republic. Under his tenure, we moved away from more traditional microfinance to savings groups. Fully integrating savings groups into the program allowed us to significantly scale up work, while concentrating in key watersheds. Today, thanks to the leadership Carlos provided, we work with nearly 5000 families in three distinct geographical regions.

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Estela (Felicita) Rodriguez, who has been a part of the Plant With Purpose family for 28 years, is retiring after a long and faithful career. She has been running many of our credit and savings programs and successfully oversaw the transformation from microcredit to the more efficient and appropriate savings program.

2295014750_d6b757cfbe_zShe is one of only two people who have been involved with Plant With Purpose/Floresta for longer than I have, and I still remember her warmth and kindness on my first visit to the Dominican Republic in early 1993. She will be sorely missed.

Finally, we welcome Durbel Lora Brito, our longtime Agroecology Director into the role of Executive Director. Durbel has been a colleague and friend for nineteen years. In addition to his degree in agronomy he has also earned an MBA, and perhaps most importantly brings tremendous spiritual depth and compassion for the farmers we serve. However, I really glimpsed the depth of Durbel’s character in 2012 when I brought my family to the Dominican Republic:

 

 

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Haiti Update, Wednesday October 12

On Monday, four teams of ten people each began work on the road from St. Etienne to Cherident. They worked to restore half of a kilometer near Lonpre. Yesterday that team was expanded to five groups of ten people, who cleared 1.2 kilometers.

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To facilitate communications, we have asked Taylor Pizzuto, who was serving with us as a communications fellow in the Dominican Republic, to move to Haiti and help us with updates, and reports. He arrived in Port au Prince today and we expect his first report later today.

Survey work continued as well. We still have not heard any news of fatalities, despite some rumors. Most of the loss of life was farther west than where we work. However, we are seeing terrible destruction, like this church in Boucan Chatte, where a couple of our village savings groups meet. The first set of pictures are of the church just over a week ago, during one of our meetings, and the second set was taken last Friday.

However the real destruction has been to the food supply – crops that people were depending on are badly damaged. Yesterday, I spoke with a friend who is originally from the village of Kavanac, near Grande Colline. He said, “fortunately we didn’t have any death, but the damages are very considerable. I wonder what people in the community will eat in the following 3 months.”

I pray that we can help to answer that question. We hope to provide cash-for-work for the next several months so that people will be able to buy food. However, for that to happen we will need to raise considerably more money than we have to date.

If you want to help, our donation page is set up so you can create your own fundraiser for Haiti relief. https://plantwithpurpose.dntly.com/campaign/help-haiti#/ You can also make a direct donation.

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Haiti Update, Tuesday October 11

I have time for just a quick update today.

We still have no reports of fatalities in the communities where Plant With Purpose has been working, which is a blessing. However, crop loss has been extensive. Guy has been working on getting a complete list of damages, which includes injuries, damage to homes, loss of crops, and loss of livestock. We work with 40,000 people in Haiti, so this list is long.

Yesterday Guy organized a work party, which is hard at work repairing the road to Grand Colline. We are paying people for their work with the money we are raising right now, so they will have money to buy food. He is giving preference to the most vulnerable families in the hiring process.

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This system of cash-for-work is one of the most effective ways of getting food to people without undercutting the local farmers and merchants with food to sell.

In the meantime we have a lot more pictures to share.

Cornillon did not have as much damage as Fonds Verrettes or Grande Colline, but the damage is still significant as these pictures show.

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Empowered for Creative Investment

This week I was honored to guest blog at Miracles in the Mundane. Thank you, Siv, for the opportunity.

Miracles in the Mundane

During a job transition for us, we were privileged for a short time to attend a small church with the loveliest people. Among them were Scott Sabin and family. Humble and unassuming, it took us a bit (but not that long) to realize that Scott is a world-changer. His work with Plant With Purpose changes lives around the world and empowers people–and future generations–to change their circumstances, provide for their children, and live with God-given hope and dignity.

Create Challenge #15: Scott Sabin

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From the very beginning God has invited human beings to participate in what he is doing in the world – creating, redeeming, and loving. In short, we were created for a purpose. Yet for many people that sense of purpose is precisely what is missing in their lives.

I had never given that much thought until one evening in the mountains of Haiti, when the Haitian Episcopal priest we worked with joined a group…

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The Unhappiest Place on Earth

The place where jogging is against the law…

The UN World Happiness Report 2016 recently classified one of my favorite places as the unhappiest country on earth. Burundi, where Plant With Purpose has been working since 2008, is, according to the report, unhappier than even Syria. This is in due in part to the political crisis which is profiled in an article from Outside Magazine, entitled How Jogging Became an Act of War .

Burundi has been locked in an intense political stalemate, which has further weakened the economy of what is possibly the most malnourished country on earth, while rendering daily activities exceedingly dangerous.

However, in the midst of this, our local staff has persevered – risking intimidation, fuel shortages, and occasional gun battles to serve the poor farmers in the countryside.  In fact they have more than persevered.  They have excelled.

Nearly 300,000 trees have been planted in the last six months – a sure sign of hope for the future, while 25 new churches have signed on to learn about their identity in Christ and understand the vocation and calling God has for them.  They join 65 churches who are already participating in our theology of work curriculum.

New savings groups are being added, and perhaps most remarkably, savings rates are increasing, as people see the savings groups as their one secure refuge in a time of great uncertainty.  In the last year the average savings per family per week has increased from forty cents to nearly one dollar. The savings groups are not just an economic opportunity, but they are the core of community, and we have placed a great deal of emphasis on making them places of reconciliation and mutual support.

As the political crisis puts new strains on communities and threatens to revive decades of civil war, I am thankful to our team for bravely continuing to share hope and opportunity.

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Competition as a Tool For Community Development

Tanzania has been the source of a number of our best program innovations. It was where we first began using Village Savings and Loan Associations in 2006. We now incorporate them into all of our programs. More recently it has been the place where our local director, Richard Mhina has been experimenting with friendly competition as an incentive for community change and transformation.

In many parts of the world small subsidies are used to incentivize development projects. If you want trees to be planted, it helps to pay people a small fee. If you want them to come to your training or your conference, it helps to pay a small stipend. (This practice is so rampant in parts of sub-Saharan Africa that I have heard of people who make their living going from one development conference to another.) We have tried very hard to not pay people to plant trees. Instead we work to create a culture in which tree planting makes sense for its own sake as a part of an agroforestry system that brings an economic return to the farmer.

In 2013, though, Richard had the idea to try something radically different. At the time we were working with 140 savings group. Richard wondered what would happen if you staged a friendly competition between the groups to see who could plant the most trees and excel in other areas of the development work.

That year our program went from planting 400,000 trees to planting 1.4 million. In January we held a celebration, attended by thousands of people, in which the winning group won a trophy and got their picture in the local newspaper. This has gone on to be an annual part of the program attended by local dignitaries.

Yesterday we held the 2016 celebration, and Richard reports that more than 5000 people were in attendance.

This photo, one of my favorites shows the groups parading into the celebration that first year.

Competition

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Are Efforts to Protect the Environment Worth It?

I was privileged to contribute to Q Ideas a week or two ago, as they addressed issues of creation care an environmental concern.

Are Efforts to Protect the Environment Worth It?

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