If you were to do only one thing for the environment, according to Kristin Riott, it should be to plant a well-placed tree.

Why?

“Because a tree will return tens of thousands of dollars in value if it’s the right tree in the right place,” said Riott, Executive Director at Bridging The Gap in Kansas City, Missouri.

That’s what BTG – a non-profit organization that works to make the Kansas City region sustainable by connecting environment, economy, and community – has been doing with the help of 1,500 volunteers annually. These volunteers are engaged in a high volume of physical work through the many programs at BTG, making it one of the more diverse environmental organizations in the country.

These programs include:

Riott said these programs are possible due to the efforts of the volunteers, who “fuel the organization.”

Riott“The original idea of our organization was the power of people working together. We’ve been based on volunteers since we’ve started. To improve the environment, there’s a lot of physical work that needs to be done. Volunteers are the coolest because they care about their community enough to give their time and their sweat for free.”

Kristin Riott, Executive Director at Bridging The Gap

The organization provides an educational component at the beginning of a volunteer experience to explain to people why what they’re doing is important. Since its inception in 1992, BTG has been a major player in educating the citizens of Kansas City about the environment, not to mention has established a recycling presence.

In the early 1990s, the organization led a campaign to bring curbside recycling to the city, establishing some 20 area recycling centers. In the early 2000s, BTG took in Heartland Tree Alliance and Kansas City WildLands. Heartland Tree Initiative received the 2008 Missouri Arbor Award of Excellence and Kansas City WildLands received the 2007 Missouri Environmental Education Association Award for Outstanding Service to a Community Organization.

Tree planting   Credit: Facebook/BridgingTheGap

Other programs BTG created or helped create are EarthWalk (’96), the Environmental Excellence Business Network (’99), By-Product Synergy (’04), Clean Commute (’08), and Walking School Bus (’08). In 2009, BTG won the the EPA’s national Clean Air Excellence Award for education of its educational campaign, Five Green Things (’08). BTG was one of two organizations in the country to win the award for education and outreach. BTG also listed in the U.S. Department of Energy’s best practices for its water conservation efforts in low-income Kansas City neighborhoods, saving those citizens $1 million in the first year.

EarthWalk      EarthWalk 2014/Credit: Facebook/BridgingThe Gap

“I feel that environmental damage and all of the consequences of it are the most defining issues of this century. I go to bed every night knowing that I did my part all day long to help with these huge problems,” Riott said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of human civilization hangs in the balance. What’s satisfying to me is I have absolutely no cognitive dissonance thinking, ‘Well, I could have done this or that.’ I did it and everybody here did it, too. We did our best to work for the future and the planet, and the future of humankind.”

Riott has been with BTG for eight years, serving as the executive director for the last six years. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Riott moved to Hong Kong in 2000 for her husband’s career and she and her family soon saw the rapid environmental deprivation in the crowded Asian cities. Upon returning to Kansas City, Riott got involved in a variety of environmental movements. She even trained with Al Gore in 2007 to become a spokesperson for climate change. Riott is also chairperson of Johnson County Climate Protection, which is a group dedicated to limiting the emission of greenhouse gases in greater Kansas City.

“Being so much a part of our community has made me a Kansas Citian in a way that I really wasn’t before I came to work here,” she said. “I now understand the profound pleasure and pride of working to make your community better.”

The staff and volunteers at BTG are a big reason why.