'Johnny Appleseed' organizes church tree-planting project in Midwest


By United Methodist News Service

RIVERSIDE, Ill. — 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 the Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan.

“The people of Riverside United Methodist Church have spent the last months studying about our special responsibility for our environment,” McCleneghan explained. “This project is grounded in the history of our tradition and in our Christian hope for and investment in the future.”

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.

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.

Following the ceremony, volunteers of all ages and backgrounds went to work. 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.