At 8:00 sharp this morning, I waved off 80-some cyclists and their support team as they headed out for day five of the seven-day STIHL Tour des Trees, the signature fundraising event for the organization I head: The TREE Fund. I’ve spent the past five days with this extraordinary group of individuals, and I’m absolutely blown away by the remarkable experience they’ve shared with me. They’ve got three more days of hard riding ahead of them, while I’ll be flying up to Troy, New York to serve as keynote speaker for the Committee of 100 Dinner at the Chapel + Cultural Center, where my friend Rick Hartt will be awarded the Sun + Balance Award. While I’m looking forward to visiting with old friends in New York, it’s bittersweet to leave the Tour, and I wish all of its participants following winds, smooth pavement, safe rides and fantastic fellowship. They deserve all of that, and more.
I rode about 190 miles with the group, while also participating in a variety of educational and outreach programs in elementary schools, churches, community centers, arboretums, and other points along the route. The sense of camaraderie and care for each and every member of the team was incredible to experience. The STIHL Tour des Trees is truly a rolling community, with each and every member contributing to the best of his or her ability to raise funds for and spread the word about the importance of tree research and education wherever they go. I have worked in the nonprofit sector for a long time, and have planned, directed, implemented and participated in hundreds of fundraising events over the years. This one is, without question, the most impressive one I have experienced, on all fronts. I’m honored and humbled to head the organization that benefits from all of their efforts.
When I ride, I tend to get songs stuck in my head that play over and over again as a way of keeping the pedals turning rhythmically. This ride, the jukebox in my brain often cued up Parliament’s “Ride On,” a classic funky jam from George Clinton’s awesome P-Funk empire, featuring the following lyrics . . .
Put a hump in your back
Shake your sacroiliac
And ride on
Let’s take a ride
It ain’t what you know, it’s what you feel
Don’t worry about being right, just be for real
We’re gonna do it to the max, when we do it
We’re gonna do it, do it good, when we do it
The line in that song that most stuck out for me on the road, and resonates with me now as I reflect on the experience is “just be for real.” The group of folks on the Tour are an exceptionally accomplished lot in their fields of expertise, but they are also some of the most real people I’ve ever worked with: friendly, forthright, passionate, exuberant, committed and cool. There’s no artifice here, and that’s refreshing after working for so long in the worlds of development, public relations and marketing, where everybody has an angle, and everyone’s on the make. It’s awesome to be reminded how fundraising and community building can be accomplished in such a straightforward, straight talking fashion. It’s not just keeping it real, it’s living it real.
The results of those efforts and attitudes speak for themselves: each rider raised at least $3,500 before participating in the Tour, and an awesome slate of sponsors led by STIHL USA ensured that ride expenses were fully defrayed, so that the funds delivered by the volunteers on wheels are deployed only to empower our research, scholarship and educational programs. The total funding secured between corporate and individual donations is over $600,000 as I type, and contributions are still coming in. (Want to add to the take? Go here and do it soon!).
While this funding is obviously important to us, the outreach and educational opportunities afforded by the Tour are equally significant, as our riders and Team will reach millions of people via print, broadcast and social media coverage, and thousands of people “up close and personal” as they roll through towns, plant trees, visit schools, and remind people how important trees are to our lives — and how much hard science, detailed planning and rigorous work goes into keeping them healthy. I am certain that there are numerous future tree care professionals out there who will cite an encounter with the STIHL Tour des Trees as the spark that first ignited their life’s passion.
I could go on an on, but suffice to say that the STIHL Tour des Trees is a transformative experience — which is why so many folks come back and do it year after year after year. (The most experienced rider this year has completed 19 Tours). Next October, we’ll be biking over 500 miles through my native turf in the Carolinas, and I look forward to being with the group for the entire week. Would you care to join us? If you’re reading this, you know where to find me, and I’ll be happy to help you get signed up. I guarantee you’ll have a life-changing experience among a great group of people in support of a great cause — and what better way could anyone ever ask to spend a week than that?