From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Sap to Seedling

When twelve-year-old Ryan showed up at our office at Tree Musketeers, he said he “just wanted to help out” as a volunteer for our youth environmental and leadership organization.

Then his principal spilled the beans on him.

Big-boned and tall for his age, Ryan was there as a last-resort punishment for chronic misbehavior in school and was ordered to perform ten hours of “volunteer” service. The huge bully chip on Ryan’s shoulder told us that this kid’s problems were layered deeper than that. He also had floundering grades and feelings of depression and isolation. His terrible social skills with people made him generally unpleasant to be around.

Ten hours isn’t enough time to take on an environmental project, so we gave him a list of little tasks to keep him busy. After one hour a day for ten days, Ryan was done. Let’s just say we didn’t mourn his departure.

Then we got another call from his dad. Ryan was being punished with five more volunteer hours for bad grades. “Okay, okay,” we sighed, “send him back.” This time, Tree Musketeers was gearing up to launch a community-wide, recycling program here in my hometown of El Segundo, California.

So we assigned Ryan to work with a sixteen-year-old volunteer supervisor and gave the reluctant older boy a bonus: two hours of volunteer time for every hour with Ryan since he was such a handful.

During those five hours, Ryan talked with residents about recycling and worked as a team member with other kids. Together they had a task to accomplish and had to report back on their success.

Much to our surprise, Ryan began to enjoy working at Tree Musketeers. He felt he was contributing something meaningful to the world and promptly announced, “I want to come back.”

My mother, Gail (our executive director), and I collectively said, “Sure, Ryan, come back whenever you want,” but doubted we’d see him again.

Sure enough, a week later, he was on our doorstep.

Proud of his persistence, we sat down with Ryan and drew up a schedule for him to volunteer at tree plantings and public education. Miraculously, he stuck to it and proved to be an enthusiastic worker. Quickly, he adopted a desk as his own and never wanted to leave the office!

I think that for the first time in his life he felt like a responsible adult. Maybe it was because at Tree Musketeers, an organization founded by eight-year-olds in 1987, we believe that kids have the power to do anything they set their minds to. Ryan became an asset to us and, in return, we gave him autonomy and responsibility.

Ryan dug in. He helped care for our forest of trees, became a tree planting supervisor, did data entry, ran errands, responded to children’s letters and even assisted us with fundraising.

When we applied for a grant from the California Department of Conservation, Ryan wrote the “cover letter” in support of it. When we got the grant for sixty-three thousand dollars, Ryan reminded us that it was probably his letter that clinched it. With that major accomplishment under his belt, he had a new conception of his role at Tree Musketeers. Nothing seemed impossible.

As part of our grant, we made plans to organize a Youth Management Team charged with promoting projects to encourage recycling with the residents of El Segundo. Ryan became the Project Manager and in a few months recruited twelve other kids to volunteer by using skills he didn’t know he had.

His new position as chair of the Youth Management Team led to his first speaking engagement. Ryan and I rehearsed for three weeks for his speech before the El Segundo City Council announcing Earth Day, 1998.

When he got up to speak, I could feel his nervousness. He faltered at first, but then as he found his confidence a tremendous sense of admiration and pride washed over me. He was so wonderful! When he finished, everyone cheered, and the mayor lauded him as the “future Mayor of El Segundo.” Ryan looked at me, his eyes aglow and face beaming.

At the end of the year, he was elected President of Tree Musketeers and even flew to Seattle to present a workshop at a national conference.

Before he tried volunteering, Ryan didn’t think he was good at anything, and he acted like it. But then, what began as drudge work for a troublemaker turned into 787 hours of volunteer service that changed not only a community, but also a life.

Tara Church

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on Tree Musketeers, contact 136 Main St., Suite A, El Segundo, CA 90245; 310-322-0263; fax: 310-322-4482; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site:]

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