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'Johnny Appleseed' organizes tree-planting project

Volunteers plant seeds for a variety of trees near the Des Plaines River as part of Riverside (Ill.) United Methodist Church's "The 1,000 Tree Planting Project."
UMNS photos by Jon Kaplan.

By Jon Kaplan*
Dec. 5, 2007 | RIVERSIDE, Ill. (UMNS)

Tom Sisulak smiles when locals refer to him as their own "Johnny Appleseed." He considers it a compliment and a calling.

When Sisulak noticed many trees in his tree-filled hometown were starting to die, he sounded an environmental call to arms. He asked his United Methodist church to help.

"While I was helping our Riverside forester clear brush along the Des Plaines River, I noticed that the older trees in Riverside were dying off at a fast rate," said Sisulak. "In 10 years or so, we might lose a lot of the natural beauty and heritage of our town. I knew I had to do something."

For 35 years, this coach and conservationist has been doing more than his share. He’s personally planted more than 15,000 trees in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. As a member of Riverside United Methodist Church, he affirms that the earth is God’s good creation and we must be its faithful stewards.

Sisulak’s faith and philosophy were the inspirations for an idea he called "The 1,000 Tree Planting Project." His goal was to gather volunteers to plant a thousand seedlings in the forested areas near the river. The idea immediately took root with his own congregation and Pastor Bromleigh McCleneghan.

"The people of Riverside United Methodist Church have spent the last months studying about our special responsibility for our environment," McCleneghan explained. "The 1,000 Tree Planting Project was the perfect fit for us. This project is grounded in the history of our tradition and in our Christian hope for and investment in the future."

Gathering seeds

Sisulak had originally planned the project for last spring, but a cicada emergence this past summer would have destroyed the young trees he hoped to plant. Instead, Sisulak proposed waiting until the fall and planting seeds rather than seedlings. The church and town officials agreed.

Sisulak spent several months gathering acorns and other seeds that had fallen from trees throughout the village. By November, he’d collected 1,000 seeds for trees native to Illinois – Northern Red Oak, Burr Oak, Black Walnut and Hickory.

Art Shagonee, a Native American, leads a blessing ceremony before the volunteers head off to plant the seeds.

On a cold, damp Saturday in mid-November, Sisulak gathered volunteers in the basement of Riverside United Methodist Church to dole out the seeds and instruct teams on the best planting methods. During a brief ceremony, he dedicated the planting project to the congregation’s youngest and oldest members: 3-month-old Fiona Hammond, the pastor’s daughter, and 99-year-old Frank Sisulak, Tom’s father.

"My father, Frank, is like the mighty oak and little Fiona is like the acorn; together, they connect the past, present and future life of our church and our community," Sisulak said.

Pastor McCleneghan added, "They remind us that God binds all of creation together, across many miles, across all walks of life and across many lifetimes."

Sisulak also had a close family friend, Art Shagonee, a Native American, perform a sacred dance to bless the project. Native Americans lived in this region thousands of years ago and used the trees for shelter, tools, clothing and jewelry.

Long-term impact

Following the ceremony, volunteers of all ages and backgrounds went to work. Despite less than ideal weather conditions, all teams completed the project in less than three hours. Afterward, everyone was enthusiastic about the experience.

"The fact that something’s going to be here 100 years from now that’s not manmade makes it important," said volunteer Bob Finn.

Several parents saw the project as a great way to get families involved in outdoor quality time. "I’m hoping they had fun, learned a little about the environment, and I hope these trees are here when they grow up," remarked Jane Murphy, mother of four young children who planted seeds near the river.

"I think they learned about nature and learned about doing a good deed," added Dan Gmitro, father of three boys who also took part.

"You plant six or eight seeds and you might get one tree. You could say those aren’t very good odds, but you could also say that it is our need and our call to go plant as many as we can so that something will come," McCleneghan said. "I think there’s a sense of hope. We’re contributing to something that is beyond ourselves."

Sisulak hopes that contribution is even bigger next year. He plans to have 10 United Methodist churches from across the country join forces in planting 10,000 trees one day next fall. People who are interested can contact him through Riverside United Methodist Church at www.umcriverside.org.

*Kaplan is a freelance producer and writer in Chicago.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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