On a Saturday morning in November when the temperature hit a near-record low of 23 degrees, Gene DeSantis walked for more than three miles from the south side of Baltimore to Druid Hill Park just so he could plant two cherry trees.
For more than four decades, the fiftysomething DeSantis has shown up at parks and other green spaces in the Baltimore area on most weekends that it’s warm enough to put a living thing into the ground. That’s merely one aspect of the exhaustive volunteer regimen he keeps that ranges from donating blood to helping out at homeless shelters and at soup kitchens.
DeSantis appears to have little material wealth and lives a decidedly unconventional life. In this era in which people use technology to connect almost instantly, he has no car or phone (neither a cell nor landline) and doesn’t use email. His private life is just that — private; close associates who have known him for decades don’t know the basic facts of his life.
But they know what matters, which is how hard DeSantis works on behalf of others. He rarely takes a day off, let alone a holiday; on Thursday, DeSantis will pick up an extra shift at Our Daily Bread where he’ll prepare Thanksgiving dinner for people in need of a hot meal.
“I keep a busy schedule,” he says — and on that recent icy Saturday, his day was particularly packed.
He’d promised to pick up some books for an elderly woman for whom he says he cooks, cleans and performs other chores. There were preparations to make for the weekly breakfast and bag lunch for homeless people at Riverside Baptist Church. Later, as usual, he’d stop by the Baltimore Rescue Mission to serve dinner and wash dishes.
But, he knew that his friend Amanda Cunningham, who had helped organize the planting for Flowering Tree Trails of Baltimore, was counting on him. So at 7:30 a.m., DeSantis began the long trudge north, his red* stocking cap jammed over his ears, his supplies for the day in a plastic grocery bag slung over his wrist, his arms slicing determinedly through the frigid air.
“I’ve never gotten a penny for any tree I’ve ever planted,” he says. “It’s all volunteer. But everywhere you look, you see my trees. I like to take walks and look at them. Some have died. But, most have thrived and matured.”
DeSantis probably donates as much of his time every few days as the typical Baltimorean volunteers in a year.
In 2015, when the New York-based Corporation for National and Community Service compared volunteer rates for the nation’s 51 largest cities, the Baltimore-Towson area ranked 31st, with about a quarter of area residents (25.4 percent) volunteering for a charitable organization during the previous year. A total of 582,749 volunteers donated 68.1 million hours of work, the report found, or 28.8 volunteer hours per capita.
By his reckoning, DeSantis’ volunteer record stretches back for four decades, since he was a scared 16-year-old who returned to Maryland (where he was born) after a traumatic upbringing in southern California.
“Gene comes in almost every afternoon and works through the evening serving food and washing up,” says Chuck Buettner, director of the Rescue Mission. “He’s forever going around asking people how he can help. If there’s nothing for him to do, you’ll see him sitting at a table by himself, reading his Bible.”
Not that DeSantis has much down time. He keeps a schedule that would rival that of a Fortune 500 executive.
Mondays and Wednesdays, he’s at Our Daily Bread. Tuesday is his baking day; he makes dozens of cookies for the residents of Karis Home, a shelter for homeless women and children. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, DeSantis says, he prepares meals and performs chores for his elderly employer. On Fridays, he puts together sandwiches for the bag lunch distributed at Riverside Church. Saturdays, he plants trees and Sundays, he cooks and serves breakfast at the church.
That tally doesn’t include the Rescue Mission, which DeSantis visits most days.
It doesn’t include the time that it takes him to get to the various work sites at which he volunteers. He doesn’t have a car, so unless he can hitch a ride, he either walks or takes public transportation to organizations scattered from Timonium on the north to Riverside church on Baltimore’s far south side.
Nor does that accounting include such supplemental activities as giving blood, which DeSantis does every eight weeks, returning as soon as the mandatory, 56-day waiting period between donations has expired.
“I can’t go back until Dec. 15,” he says, a bit sadly. “I always look forward to giving blood.”
Red Cross records show DeSantis has donated 179 units of blood — or approximately 179 pints — since 1996, according to Regina Boothe Bratton, a spokeswoman for the charity. (That’s the rough equivalent of his having donated every drop of blood in his body 18 times.) He’s convinced, however, that the organization’s records are incomplete. “I know that I’ve donated 300 units,” he says, “at the very least.”
Statistics matter to DeSantis. They’re a concrete way of measuring the good he’s accomplished, of demonstrating to himself and the world that his time on earth is amounting to something.
For instance, he’s kept a record in his head of every tree he’s planted since the day in 1977 when he embarked upon his volunteer mission. The trees themselves are purchased by public and private organizations. But, this slight and skinny man with bad eyesight — he’s 5’9,” weighs roughly 120 pounds, and blinks up at his companions almost apologetically through huge glasses -- does the hard manual labor. The two cherry trees he planted in Druid Hill Park were, he says, numbers 15,034 and 15,035.
“I call him ‘Gene, Gene, the planting machine,” says Cunningham, who has organized many of the volunteer plantings on behalf of Blue Water Baltimore, the Baltimore Tree Trust and other environmental groups.
Unfortunately, no written record exists of DeSantis’ trees. But Cunningham has known DeSantis since the late 1990s and believes that the count he keeps in his head is accurate.
“Every time I’ve seen Gene for at least the past seven years, he’s updated the total,” she says.
“Then, he’ll tell me where he’s planting next and what that number will be. His calculations are always correct. That’s what matters to him — the number of trees he’s planted, how many cookies he’s baked, how much blood he’s donated.”
He’s also something of a savant when it comes to the city’s past.
“Gene has the history of Baltimore down cold,” says Tim Brennan, who has volunteered at Our Daily Bread with DeSantis for the past 15 years.
“He has this incredible grasp of dates and numbers. He knows when the Washington Monument was built and he knows how many buildings burned down in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.”
Though DeSantis is exact about the statistics that matter to him, he can be imprecise about more conventional milestones: his age (first he says 60, then revises that estimate downward to 57) or the year he graduated from Towson University. (Was it 1983?) The school’s records indicate they conferred a bachelor’s degree on a Eugene DeSantis in 1984 who was born in August of 1961 and who now is 56.
Other details pertaining to DeSantis’ personal life also are hazy. Though Cunningham has known DeSantis for about 20 years, she still doesn’t know where he lives.
“He won’t tell me anything more specific than ‘around Otterbein,’” she says with a laugh.
DeSantis doesn’t use email or own a cell phone. If someone needs to contact him, he suggests they call the main number for the Rescue Mission, where he’ll show up sooner or later. The Mission is where Cunningham mails DeSantis the addresses of upcoming plantings.
“He isn’t a mainstream kind of guy,” Brennan says. “But he has a good heart, and what he has accomplished is phenomenal.”
DeSantis says he spent his first 6 years in Dundalk but says he spent most of his childhood in southern California. His description of that childhood — in which he scavenged through garbage bins for food, was beaten brutally and often feared for his life — is harrowing. But like other aspects of his personal life, the specifics are difficult to pin down. The 40-year-old official records that might illuminate the details of his ordeal are either non-existent or next to impossible to find.
But, by the late 1970s, the then-16-year-old boy was back in Maryland. It was at Calvary Baptist Church in 1977, where the teen first accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. It was at Calvary that a pastor suggested that DeSantis make volunteer service his life’s work and take jobs just to pay rent and put food on the table. So that’s what he did, working variously as a cashier in a clothing store, in a bakery, as a dishwasher and now, as a caretaker.
“Maybe if someone else who is 16-years-old and hurting inside hears my story, instead of going the wrong way, they’ll take a more constructive path,” he says.
“My message is that just because you came from an abusive home it doesn’t have to end that way. You don’t have to reiterate the violence, the drinking or the drugs. You can think about someone else.”
DeSantis’ past and his private life might be a bit murky, but testimonials to his decades of public service are abundant, crystal-clear and enthusiastically provided.
“When Gene comes upon a tree planting,” Cunningham says, “he’ll stop whatever he’s doing, grab a shovel and jump right in. Sometimes, it’s city workers who are doing the planting, and they are quite aghast that he’ll start doing something so labor-intensive in the summer heat. They feel they have to tell him to stop because he won’t get paid.
“ ‘I know,’ Gene says. ‘I just want to help.’ And, he keeps right on planting.”