Chances are that you've never heard of Gene DeSantis, but his story seems one destined for legend. In fact, he's already being likened to a modern-day Johnny Appleseed. For almost three decades, DeSantis has made it his mission to plant trees throughout Baltimore -- with nearly 14 thousand of them planted so far. And like that famed American naturalist before him, much of DeSantis' everyday life is marked with a humility and spirit of volunteerism so rarely seen, yet so very needed.Despite the fact that most folks in town might not know Gene DeSantis by name, the fruits of his labor are nearly everywhere. As a community volunteer working with Baltimore's Parks & People Foundation, DeSantis says he's personally planted an amazing 13,849 saplings in public parks and sidewalk planters throughout the city. And he should know. With each tree he lovingly lays to root, he makes a note in his journal.
It's hardly work for DeSantis though, writes Mark Reutter of Baltimore Brew in a lovely piece on the modern-day Johnny Appleseed :
Gene has planted trees in just about every neighborhood in Baltimore. He's brought them to parks big and small, sat them along streets, dug spaces for them in tight corners, inserted them next to tall buildings and plunked them down by gurgling streams.
He never accepts any sort of payment. Says he doesn't need to. Satisfaction comes from watching them grow and knowing that he's fulfilling a personal commitment he made many years ago. "Trees are like children to me in a lot of ways," he says.
DeSantis developed his strong affection for the peace found among trees as a youth whose home-life was anything but peaceful. Growing up, DeSantis was regularly beaten by his abusive stepfather, and, as he tells Reutter, trees were "the only tranquility I had." When he was just sixteen, his stepfather murdered his mother before committing suicide.
The next year, while living with his biological father, DeSantis became interested in planting trees after befriending a group of city landscapers. They couldn't afford to add him to the payroll, but DeSantis decided to help out anyways -- and he's never stopped.
"Gene's life is taking care of the environment and the community," Jeff Barrett of the Parks & People Foundation tells Reutter. "He's just an unstoppable force and a huge component of our tree planting activities."
And DeSantis' volunteerism doesn't end with tree-planting. For the last 26 years, he has donated time every Monday and Wednesday serving food at Our Daily Bread, a cafeteria for the needy; Tuesdays and Thursdays he prepares meals at a care facility for seniors; and on Fridays he helps feed the homeless at a local church. On the weekend, he takes a bus to join other volunteers in planting trees throughout the community.
In hindsight, perhaps comparing Gene DeSantis to Johnny Appleseed is too lofty an assessment for the latter.