When I finished reading the story Mark Reutter wrote about Gene DeSantis, I knew I’d been introduced to one of those special human beings who leave the world a better place.
DeSantis plants trees. When Reutter’s story appeared in Baltimore Brew, he had planted 13,849 of them along sidewalks, in planters, and in parks throughout the city. He keeps track of them in a journal he carries with him.
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.
Tree planting is not the only volunteering DeSantis does. He works in the kitchen for Our Daily Bread, helps dementia sufferers at the Hooper Adult Day Care Center, makes sandwiches and breakfasts for the homeless at the Riverside Baptist Church, and cleans tables at the Baltimore Rescue Mission. He has chosen a life of service so only takes paying jobs he can fit around his volunteer work.
His commitment and gentle spirit no doubt infuse every place he chooses to offer his time, but it is the trees that will live on. No one will know DeSantis planted them, but something of his love for trees will flow through the sap and limbs.
He might have turned out differently. Children who endure regular beatings by a stepfather and an alcoholic mother often do. But in the years of chaos and nightmare, he found solace in trees.
The horror only ended after his stepfather shot his mother and then turned the gun on himself. Had 16-year-old DeSantis not hidden in an outhouse, he would not have had the chance to devote his life to service, and Baltimore would be the poorer.
Men like Gene DeSantis inspire us to live with purpose. And journalists like Mark Reutter inspire us to tell their stories with compassion and integrity.