When Life is Tough, Take a Leap

finley_leaping.jpgLife can be overwhelming, can’t it? There are times when the problems seem insurmountable, when you just don’t know how to go on. Even for me, blessed with unimaginable good fortune, there are times like this winter when I had to literally will myself to put one foot in front of the other because standing, paralyzed at the top of the stairs wasn’t going to solve anything. That’s more personal than I usually get, but Earth Day, especially this Earth Day, is personal for me.

Earlier this winter my beautiful, wonderful niece, Finley Broaddus, was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and very un-fun liver cancer. As you might imagine, our family’s lives came to a bit of a standstill as everything other than Finley’s needs, and support for her parents, fell down the ladder of priorities. Just a few weeks before her diagnosis, Finley had been accepted early decision into the College of William and Mary where she hoped to study environmental policy, but those dreams went on hold while she poured her energy into the task at hand.

green_leap_logo.jpgA few weeks into her lengthy residence at the Bloomberg Children’s Center of Johns Hopkins, she and her father (my brother) started talking about ways for her to have impact on the issues she cared about even while sequestered in a pediatric oncology ward. At about the same time, her legions of fans were wondering how they could help, and especially how they could give her a very special 18th birthday even though she couldn’t eat cake or enjoy a typical celebration for this milestone. The plan eventually hatched into “Finley’s Green Leap Forward Fund,” and a birthday surprise campaign on Facebook that has to date raised nearly $90,000 from people in 37 states and six continents.

That alone would be excitement enough, but this week Finley began paying it forward with Earth Day grants. For her first round, she selected two groups, the Cacapon Institute in High View, West Virginia, and The Green Belt Movement in Nairobi, Kenya. Each will receive $5,000 to put toward tree planting and associated volunteer training. Finley focused on trees for her first grants because of the cascading benefits: carbon sequestration, water purification and retention, wildlife habitat, shade and cooling, food and fuel. The Cacapon Institute even offered to dedicate its 2014 planting season to Finley!

Planting trees runs deep with my sons, Finley’s cousins.  When Evan, my older son, was about five years old the preschool he attended and the church from which they rented space was bursting at the seams and made the decision to build new classrooms.  This, in turn, meant taking out a small piece of adjacent woods.  When the time came to cut the trees down, and Evan realized what has happening, he made it very clear that he felt this was an injustice to the birds and animals who lived in those woods. How could we adults condone such a heinous act?

wilmington_trees_planted_in_1994.jpgThis was a teachable moment. As his mother, I couldn’t halt the project but I could take action in another way: We were going to plant trees somewhere else. It seemed like a heavy burden at the time. I didn’t have money or connections, but somehow we raised a few hundred dollars, received permission to plant trees along a floodplain in a nearby New Castle County park, and organized young children and their families on a cold spring day to plant 100 or so native trees. For years, while we still lived in Delaware, we tended those trees, hauling water to get them through initial dry spells, picking up litter and (most importantly) fending off mowing crews.  We moved away in 2000, but in 2011 we returned to see the grove that would never have happened if Evan hadn’t gotten the ball rolling with his five-year-old sensibilities.

Finley has now set in motion a much bigger wave of tree-planting and restoration that her friends and fans want to see spread out across the land. Many of them are planting trees of their own and posting pictures on Finley’s Green Leap Forward Fund’s Facebook page, sometimes with green ribbons tied around them. This weekend my husband and I will be planting “Finley trees” on our property in a rural section of Virginia’s Northern Neck.

None of us can fix all of the world’s woes, but each of us can do something.  A five-year-old child can express an opinion, a parent can start organizing, classmates can donate money, while still others can give an hour to dig holes. My niece Finley is doing something big. She’s not letting herself be paralyzed by the enormity of the challenges ahead, and neither should we.  Let’s get a shovel and do something.

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