OK, hands up, I confess: I’m an optimistic environmentalist.

With the constant barrage of sobering news stories that pop up on a daily basis about the existential threat we’re facing, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can retain an upbeat disposition, but I do.

Volunteers: the pulse that runs through our charity

I’ve been a writer and broadcaster on sustainable living for more than 2 decades and there have been countless gut-wrenching pieces in the media during that time. As a creative writer, I’ve always tried to take the freaky out of eco and encouraged people to lean towards the green.

I’ve met some illuminating visionaries over the years. The ones I feel a greater affinity towards share my optimistic view that together, we can make an incredible difference to ourselves and the big, squishy blue ball we all live on: our beautiful planet earth.

Back in 2017, my wonderful husband Simon and I founded The Word Forest Organisation, a small international reforestation charity based in Dorset. We plant trees, build schools, facilitate education and support women’s empowerment in rural Kenya. We plant there because trees in the tropics near the equator can grow up to 10 times faster than anywhere else in the world: in terms of mitigating climate chaos, they’re absolute beasts!

A mango tree for example, in a tiny handful of years, will have drawn down and locked in around ¼ of a tonne of CO 2 and other pollutants. At 5 years old, it’ll be around 12ft tall and bear 100 pieces of nutritious fruit. These deep-rooted evergreens provide a simple solution to our global crisis and are also able to put a serious dent in hunger and poverty too.

Volunteers: the pulse that runs through our charity

Strangely enough, the mango trees in Boré, Coast Province – one of the main areas we’re planting in – seem happier when Kenya suffers particularly hot years! As creatures and humans buckle under the pressure of drought (as they have many times in the past decade) the mango does its thing, undeterred. In fact, its beautiful flowers only burst forth when everything else is wilting in the heat.

Volunteers: the pulse that runs through our charity

If a mango tree had human traits, perhaps it would also be an optimistic
environmentalist, saving its optimum output for when it was needed the most.

There are approximately 178,000 registered charities in England and Wales with an income of under £1 million. Remarkably, over the last 12 months, during a period of immense volatility where every NGOs capacity to fundraise was utterly sideswiped by the pandemic, over 5,000 new organisations registered as charities in the UK. That’s optimism in action, if ever I saw it!

Conversely, the shocking news is that in the year ahead, around 50% of small charities are expected to close through lack of funding. It’s a terrifying thought but the Third Sector landscape is poised to change beyond all recognition.

Thankfully, we’ve attracted an incredible bunch of volunteers who share our values and our vision that we can: reforest Kenya, reduce hunger and poverty, allow biodiversity to flourish once more and improve our planet’s health.

On the darkest of days the abundant love, unwavering compassion and inner strength that flows through our team, creates an elixir that we all drink from to re-energise our souls. On a cellular level, I’ve physically experienced uplift during our team meetings on Zoom, which are nowhere near as effective as they would be if we were all in the same room. Right now, it’s all we have I’m grateful.

I believe our collective hope isn’t a delusional state, it’s a renewable, sustainable energy source and the very stuff we are all going to need a lot more of in the future.

When the first lockdown kicked in, so did my belief that our charity would find a way to survive and burst into flower like the mango tree. I’m the only member of staff and most of our volunteers were locals who helped us in a variety of ways. Sadly, their ability to do so was severed, as some had to home school, or they lacked laptops and we lacked the budget to buy them one.

As our streets and offices fell into a deeper silence in April, I reached out to two organisations for urgent help: Reach Volunteering and Ethical Angel. Over the course of about a month, we boosted our number from an occasional dozen, to 50. We were finally able to form proper departments and Zoom helped us plait positive energy and ideas together, fuelled with laughter and good intention. We built a separate website for the volunteers so they could stay connected: there’s even a section dedicated to helping
them maintain good mental health and wellbeing whilst working on the climate crisis.

Half a year later, a big handful of the volunteers have gone back to their jobs post-furlough but I’m delighted to say many have kept a foot in the door and continue to help us, for which I’ll forever be grateful. I still find it quite overwhelming at times, seeing a whole screen full of eager faces who want to guide our planet towards wellness through tree planting in the tropics.

Volunteers: the pulse that runs through our charity

Since March, we’ve been sending over £4,500 to Kenya every month so people in the tree planting communities we work with can keep starvation at bay. If you’d like to contribute to our emergency appeal for critical food aid, please visit WordForest.org/donate or consider gifting us via a Facebook Birthday Fundraiser.

Asante sana, marafiki (thank you very much, friends) Simon, Helen, Izzy, Rikey, Phil, Sue, Jo, Bethany, Anna, Lexi, Grace, Alison, Ceri, Helen, Chris, Paul, Laura, Helena, Jo, Jay, Ivor, Michelle, Kate, Carrie and countless others who have helped us stay afloat on this tumultuous ocean.

Volunteers: the pulse that runs through our charity

In Kiswahili, ‘Tuko Pamoja’ means ‘We Are Together’ and it’s often used to describe the strength we have in unity.

I am an optimistic environmentalist, but I’m not delusional.

I can see what lies ahead. The things I thought would happen at the end of my lifetime are heading towards us now at a pace.

I believe joy will rise again to replace fear.

A different kind of abundance will be born from shared poverty.

Hope will be born from uncertainty and one day, The Word Forest Organisation will have to close its doors because Kenya will be covered in trees.

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About Author

Tracey West FRSA is CEO and co-founder of WordForest.org.

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