Emily Thomé (21) loves travel, writing, the environment, and meeting new people. These four elements have commingled into love for her job as a grant writer for Plant With Purpose.

The San Diego-based nonprofit was founded in 1984 originally under the name Floresta USA by Tom Woodard, who saw a correlation between deforestation and poverty in the Dominican Republic. He then set out to address this disparity that affected rural subsistence farmers around the world. The company rebranded as Plant With Purpose in 2010. By working with its partners, Plant With Purpose has expanded its operations around the world, including Haiti, Ethiopia, Thailand, and Mexico.

Plant With Purpose employs a watershed model to rural areas that require assistance. The model is based on a ‘trickle down’ effect — where a watershed consists of small streams that converge with a larger body of water — and has three key goals: economic empowerment, environmental restoration, and spiritual renewal. These goals are achieved through regenerative farming, building spiritual partnerships between neighboring church communities, and fostering a biblical stewardship approach to respecting and maintaining the environment. In addition, Plant With Purpose’s efforts have also helped reduce rural poverty.

“About 80% of the people who are experiencing poverty in the world are in rural areas,” Thomé said. “Hope is a really powerful thing at combating poverty. When people have that hope and that understanding that they matter, that changes things.”

Thomé explained how this three-pillar model works. In terms of economic empowerment, Plant With Purpose works with purpose groups, including savings-based microfinance loan groups. This means that all funds are raised through voluntary participants, no outside capital is included.

The second pillar, environmental restoration, focuses on which environmental issues must be addressed in each different country and climate. Here, purpose groups serve as a learning forum, where Plant With Purpose representatives employ an agroforestry ‘seeds of change’ curriculum. From there, they partner with local communities to address these specific issues.

The third, spiritual renewal, focuses on partnering with local Christian churches. One training they employ is called ‘theology of work,’ where they emphasize that there is value and dignity in the role you serve and the work you do. By reminding individuals of this, they develop hope that their efforts can serve as a positive force toward combating rural poverty.

“That’s a central theme that Plant With Purpose has. I love the intersection of economics, looking at spiritual development, and looking at the environment. That’s always been a big passion of mine.”

Thomé first heard about Plant With Purpose following a study abroad trip to Jordan as part of her International Studies BA program. In Jordan she was part of a small cohort of students from different countries. There, she studied Arabic and Middle Eastern politics and learned conflict resolution, as well as how religion, culture, and politics intermingle.

“It was a pretty transformational time,” she said. “The main message that I walked away with was this kind of repetitive theme of trying to erase this ‘us versus them’ mentality when it comes to different cultures, when it comes to just being different spaces. We’re in close proximity.”

She also emphasized the importance of how Christ builds bridges and how it relates to her role now.

“That’s honestly what drew me to the job that I’m at now, because that’s one of [Plant With Purpose’s] biggest sentiments,” she explained. “And while they don’t work in the Middle East, they just embodied a lot of what I learned and resonated with during that program. So that was pretty impactful for me.”

Following the study abroad trip, everything shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thomé found herself stuck at home wanting to be productive, so she explored remote internship opportunities. One day she received a PLNU email that advertised Plant With Purpose was looking to fill a grant writer internship role. She especially was drawn to how they foster unity and build bridges between people.

“I really liked that,” she said. “That’s a central theme that Plant With Purpose has. I love the intersection of economics, looking at spiritual development, and looking at the environment. That’s always been a big passion of mine.”

Thomé grew up in the Pacific Northwest before trading the Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees for palm trees in sunny San Diego.

“When I was younger, I was convinced that I wanted to be Jane Goodall,” she reminisced. “I wanted to work with chimpanzees and just wander around in the rainforest. So it felt like a little part of my childhood coming back and being like, ‘you can still do the work you want to do and bring the environmental passion into that. They don’t have to be separate.’ And so I was definitely drawn to Plant With Purpose through that.”

Emily planting with Plant with a Purpose

After interning, Thomé was invited by the company to work for them, first as a part-time grants team assistant before being promoted to a full-time grant writer in 2022. A major component of her job revolves around fostering relationships with different local, national, and international large-scale donors — whether they be an individual, a foundation or an organization — who also believe in Plant With Purpose’s mission and want to invest. By recognizing that many people wish to give back, Thomé invites them into a partnership where their money can make a visible difference and impact the lives of millions of people through generated impact reports.

“That is really special for me, too,” Thomé explained, “because I am pretty passionate about development work being done ethically — in a way that ethically shares people’s stories, in a way that does what it says it’s doing, in a way that measures the actual impact it has.” 

“Plant With purpose does a really good job by critically evaluating the work that we do, measuring their impact reports, really looking at whether we’re making the impact that we say we’re aiming to make. It’s really great to be able to report back to funders and say, ‘Here’s what your money has done. Here’s what we were doing.’”

There is great flexibility for how grant funders can designate how their funds can be applied. For example, if vendors are interested in long-term sustained impact, Plant With Purpose can show them data on how their efforts have positively affected the Dominican Republic since the 1980s. Collaboration remains a key element to the partnerships in which Plant With Purpose enters.

“That’s a really cool part,” she said. “It’s not just people giving us money and us putting it where it needs to go. It’s a collaborative process of aligning with the passion of the funder and saying, ‘Where are you passionate about? How can we help you get to where you want to? How can we be a partner in this?’ So I really appreciate that aspect.”

One avenue in which Plant With Purpose encourages partnerships is through its Plant a Tree campaign. This is a great option for people who wish to make a monthly or one-time donation for as little as one dollar. But it also encourages individuals who are environmentally conscious to make a difference, even if they are on a budget. While it may not seem like it makes a large impact at first, the effort multiplies with each additional tree planted.

“That is really special for me, too. Because I am pretty passionate about development work being done ethically — in a way that ethically shares people’s stories, in a way that does what it says it’s doing, in a way that measures the actual impact it has.”

“Tree planting is so important,” she explained. “We need people who are interested in and passionate about that. At this point we’ve planted 56 million trees across eight different countries. And that is done through people’s individual donations of one tree at a time. And that just does incredible work at restoring soil, purifying water sources, and increasing crop diversity.”

The act of planting trees has also contributed to increasing biodiversity in rural areas that Plant With Purpose have long-standing collaboration with local communities.

“Biodiversity is really important, especially for combating climate change,” she said. “Looking at that and reforestation plays a huge role in that. A really central kind of theme to that plan is that all of our work is locally led. It’s never people from the U.S. coming in and saying, ‘Here’s how you should plant trees and why you should plant them, and what kinds of trees.’”

“We really hold on to the belief that it is the people local to the land who know their land the best. They know what the land means. They are the ones who should be leading the reforestation efforts. We’re here to equip them to be empowered to do the work that they need to do.”

“Plant With purpose does a really good job by critically evaluating the work that we do, measuring their impact reports, really looking at whether we’re making the impact that we say we’re aiming to make. It’s really great to be able to report back to funders and say, ‘Here’s what your money has done. Here’s what we were doing.’”

In regard to short- and long-term goals, Plant With Purpose has recently expanded its global outreach to Malawi, a country in East Africa that represents the ninth country the nonprofit has assisted. In addition, the company continues to promote Christian approaches to combating climate change and other environmental crises.

Emily smiling in a yellow coat

“There is a really unique need right now for Christian solutions to environmental challenges,” she said, “because there is not a lot of that right now. There are not a lot of other organizations who are bridging that gap between faith-based work and looking at the environment in order to help equip people who are experiencing poverty.”

Thomé takes this Christian stewardship message to heart, having been raised in the church and being the daughter of a pastor. She also acknowledges how there seems to be a narrative that caring for the environment is a secular idea, rather than one that is compatible with faith.

“I often felt frustrated at some spaces that I was in where it seemed like there was almost a war between taking care of the environment and choosing to be Christian,” she said. “It almost seemed like the narrative and culture was that you could only pick one, which is so ridiculous because it is not true.”

“In the Bible, humans are called to tend to, cultivate, and care for the earth. When I found that with Plant With Purpose, something felt so right, like this [was] what I’ve been searching for — a group of people who hold tightly to their faith and spirituality, and then also look at the Earth and say, ‘This is not in opposition; in actually, they’re incomplete without each other.’ Caring for the Earth is a way to care for people, which is a way to love God. You can’t separate that out.” 

Thomé specifically referenced Isaiah, 41: 18–19: “I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together . . .”

“God is talking to the people of Israel about what restoration looks like,” she said. “It’s a really beautiful metaphor paralleling God’s restoration of people and humanity.”

Sean Woodard (PLNU '14) is an educator and film scholar. He is currently pursuing an English PhD at University of Texas at Arlington. As a journalist, he has served as an editor, writer, and columnist for multiple publications. Sean's poetry, fiction, and other writing can be found here: https://www.seanwoodard.com/