It sounds like something out of a movie. A young man is diagnosed with cancer, and he has only two things to keep him going: his work tending to the land that he loves, and his love for the people who tend the land with him. This was no cinematic feature, though. This was life for Land Manager, Justin Wages. In late 2008, the 33-year-old was working part-time at Placer Land Trust and attending classes at Sierra College when he was diagnosed with stage-four cancer.
“I had school, I had work, and I had cancer, and I couldn’t do all three. I had to choose two, and I didn’t have a choice about the cancer,” Wages said. “I chose work, and PLT became my rock.”
Executive Director Jeff Darlington was able to add two hours per week to Wages’ schedule so that he could receive health benefits as a full-time employee. Wages underwent chemotherapy and five surgeries during the next three and a half years, and in that time he kept a flexible schedule at PLT. “I would work in the office for a while, take a break to be sick in the bathroom, and go back to work,” Wages said. “I’d be up at 5 a.m. scattering seeds at one of our sites, and I’d have to go behind a tree to throw up.”
PLT Assistant Director Jessica Daugherty described one day during that time that she feels epitomizes Wages’ dedication to the PLT cause: “We were in the middle of a drought,” she said, “and volunteers had planted wildflowers at Doty Ravine Preserve. Justin was worried the seeds might die if they didn’t get watered, so even though he was fresh out of surgery and totally sick, he hiked out there in the heat, with a chemo bag slung over his shoulder, so he could water the seeds.”
Daugherty likened Wages to the “Forrest Gump” character, Captain Dan, waving his fist in the air, unshakeable in his fight against the elements, even with the odds against him.
“I think about how hard Justin was working and how sick he was,” Daugherty said, “and I think it’s really emblematic of how we all feel about working here. It’s our passion.”
Wages reflected on how much the entire PLT community, including those outside the office, came to mean to him while he had cancer. Folks not only sent him cards, they left meals at his doorstep, and donated appliances when he had to find a new home with short notice. After finishing the required hours, one Americorps volunteer offered to continue working on Wages’ behalf. Trees bring people together, Wages realized, and that’s what’s important about the work PLT does.
“We love the land, but we preserve it for people,” he said. “The people at PLT gave me a reason to live.”