Imagine growing up in an impoverished community lacking in nature. No leafy green trees, birds chirping or branches swaying in the wind – simple aspects of life that are taken for granted. And only realising this was missing when you moved to a new town as a teenager.
Damian and his older brother Ramone were raised by their gran, in a vulnerable suburb of Strand, 45 kilometres outside of Cape Town in South Africa. As an aspiring rugby player, Damian was given the opportunity to attend Secondary School as a boarder in Stellenbosch. It was only once he left his childhood community that he realised what he had been missing out on. Nature.
The wonder of trees
As a kid, you don’t miss what you don’t know but when Damian arrived in Stellenbosch, the abundance of nature and the beauty of the town opened his eyes to the social inequalities that existed between communities that were situated a mere 40 minutes apart.
Damian Willemse explains, “I grew up in an area that didn’t have any trees. It was sandy and barren. It was only when I saw how lush and green Stellenbosch was, that I realised what a huge impact nature could have on one’s wellbeing.
“It was an eye opener to experience a simple thing such as the changing of the seasons in Stellenbosch. I had never experienced that before despite growing up a few towns away.”
Rugby opens doors to a new world
Sport was the catalyst for change in Damian’s life. He grew up watching his dad play rugby and that’s where his love for the game started. When he was eight years old, he joined a Touch Rugby team in Strand, and it kept him away from the temptation of drugs, alcohol and crime. Playing sport kept him safe.
“My team was like a brotherhood, a real family. Our coach knew our circumstances and he knew the potential dangers for us as young boys if we sat at home, so we were very focused on our training. We wanted to do something positive with our lives, and rugby made it possible.”
In 2007, Damian’s brother received a scholarship to Paul Roos Gymnasium and four years later, when Damian emerged as a star rugby player in his age group, he also received a scholarship to the prestigious secondary school as a boarder.
The move to the school in Stellenbosch not only opened up a whole new world of education and rugby training, it also opened Damian’s eyes to the power of nature.
Damian Willemse and One Tree Planted
It was during Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, that Damian heard about Arsenal footballer Héctor Bellerín partnering with non-profit reforestation organisation, One Tree Planted to plant 58,617 trees in the Amazon Rainforest.
“It was amazing to see the support Héctor got from the football community – how they joined in and helped him raise funds. I wanted to use my platform to do the same for my community.”
Damian chose to support One Tree Planted in their efforts to plant 150,000 trees across 125 hectares in the Western Cape region of South Africa, comprising indigenous dense trees, shrubs, and perennials with a focus on medicinal and food-bearing species that will benefit these communities for generations to come.
He aims to raise the equivalent of €30,000 (around 35,000 trees). It’s an ambitious target when you’re a full-time rugby player. “I try to remember that I’m working towards something that’s bigger than me. It encourages me to pursue new possibilities in all areas of my life.”
Did I mention that Damian is just 23-years-old so it feels strange asking him what he’d like his legacy to be, but anyone who comes into contact with him will know that he’s wise beyond his years. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who served others,” he says, “I’ve had a lot of opportunities to get to where I am in life, and now I’m in a position to give back to those who come from similar circumstances.”
What better way to serve others than having the conviction to single-handedly start a movement that will fundamentally change the lives of thousands of people. Support Damian in changing the landscape of impoverished areas one tree at a time, by making a donation on his fundraising page. Each tree planted will become a cluster, and before long, streets will be lined, parks will have shade and communities will enjoy an abundance of birdlife for decades to come. It’s exactly how Damian pictures it.