Much More Than a Mvule Tree Mead carries on the work of Adam Langford

Natalie Mead's fourth-grade class at Pecan Creek Elementary School in Denton, Texas, wants to take a trip to Uganda - in 30 years. They need that extra time because that's how long it takes for a Mvule tree to mature and flourish.

When classes began in Mrs. Mead's class last fall, none of her students had heard of a Mvule tree or knew of the great resource it is to the villages of Uganda. But by the end of the year, the class was doing all it could to raise money to plant as many Mvule trees as possible.

The project was born out of the tragic death of OC alumnus Adam Langford in January. Langford died in an automobile accident while working as a missionary in Uganda.

Natalie and her husband, Todd, had known Adam since he was a member of Todd's youth group at Quail Springs Church of Christ. The Meads had a close connection with Adam and his entire family. The Langford kids frequently visited the Meads' home, even when the youth group wasn't meeting. Natalie often called on Adam's mom, Kathy, for advice about raising her own kids.

Natalie recalls a trip to Honduras that foretold Adam's love for missions. Shortly after arriving with the youth group, her husband became ill. Adam stepped up and took a leading role. 

The couple reconnected with Adam years later just as he was about to embark on his mission work in Uganda. The Meads' trip to Portland for Todd's birthday led to an unlikely reunion. As the couple walked down the street on their way to have coffee, they heard a familiar voice bellow from a passing car. Both wondered if they were hearing things, but minutes later, Adam and his friends walked into the coffee shop.

Adam was only two weeks away from leaving for his mission work in Uganda. He was going to join his brother and his sister-in-law, Ben and Kym Langford, in their work.

"Adam's eyes were full of life," Natalie remembers. 

Natalie now cherishes an image in her mind of Adam that night. She said that if you could have held a mirror to her face as he told her of his upcoming plans, you would have seen a look of confusion. The idea that someone so young could give up everything he had to go and serve others was astounding. But Adam didn't consider it a sacrifice.

Tragically, on January 16, 2007, Adam made the ultimate sacrifice. 

A visit to the Langfords' home before the funeral revealed one of Adam's greatest passions. Kathy showed items that had been sent back from Uganda and told stories of the projects Adam had been a part of. One project stuck out among the rest.

"Her eyes lit up with the same glow that Adam's eyes always had," Natalie said. "I had an immediate connection with this project. I didn't know then what it was about, but it was something that really resonated with me. In the midst of that grief, it transformed her."

Natalie knew that her class of fourth-graders was extra special that year. When she returned to school after the funeral, her students recognized she was dealing with something personal. They asked her why she looked so sad.

She shared Adam's story and her struggle to understand why someone who was so young and who was making such a positive impact could be taken. Her students cried with her and asked to learn more about Adam and his work.

As she read the information from Adam's funeral program, her students made an immediate connection with The Mvule Project. They wanted to know more about it, they wanted to research it and they wanted to write about it - anything they could do to learn more.

And so the idea of authoring a book was born. In the beginning, the hope was that Natalie and the students could sell enough books to sponsor one tree through The Mvule Project. For each tree planted, up to 100 per village, the Kibo Group, a non-profit agency, contributes to a Ugandan village. One hundred trees can earn a village as much as $3,000 in two years. 

With a statewide writing test to complete before they could begin the book, Natalie's students had just 10 weeks to complete the entire project before the end of the school year. The class divided into five groups: writing, illustration, editing, marketing and research. 

Natalie asked the children to take the weekend and think about which group they most wanted to be a part of. When they returned to class the following Monday, each group was evenly divided and each student was able to work on their first team choice. Natalie says this is just one of the many details that seemed to fall into place.

Natalie contacted a friend in the publishing business. A simple request for guidance led to her friend volunteering to publish the book completely free of charge. Volunteers continued to join the project, including a new marketing firm as well as many of the students' parents.

The student research team began researching all aspects of Uganda, including the culture, animals and, of course, the Mvule tree. Next, it was up to the editing team to sort through all the information. Then the whole class came up with the story's main characters and plot.

After the class developed the story, the writing and illustrating teams took on their duties. The writers began writing as a group, but with time short to complete the entire process, Natalie gave each of them the opportunity to write out their version of the story. They then brought all those ideas together and came out with the final product.

In the book, entitled More Than a Mvule Tree, a Mvule tree becomes friends with an African boy. The boy has to protect the tree from the book's villain, a man interested in cutting down the tree to make furniture, by uniting the community and educating him on the need to preserve the tree.

On the illustration team, each student was responsible for drawing the same element over and over to keep continuity in the drawings. One person took on drawing the tree trunks while another drew all the leaves.

"I really just facilitated the process," Natalie said. "If it had become my book, it would have been a completely different story and the children's perspective would have been lost."

The student marketing team had the responsibility of spreading word of the project to the school and beyond. Their school-wide announcements chronicled the progress of how many books were being sold and how many trees that would provide for the Ugandan people.

Today, the class has sold more than 600 books, which will purchase approximately 40 trees. When Natalie's former students stop by her classroom, which houses a new class of fourth-graders this year, they are no longer interested in the number of books they have sold. They simply want to know how many trees they have helped plant in Uganda. 

A release party a week after the book's printing allowed the kids to share their book and their dreams for the project with their schoolmates and some very important guests. The party was attended by friends and family, local media, members of the local school board, a Kibo Group representative, and maybe most importantly, Terry and Kathy Langford, who had just returned from a trip to Uganda.

Interest in the book has continued to grow. Natalie, who fills and ships all the orders, has sent books across the country and across the world, including Uganda. She has received requests from California to Pennsylvania and has interest from a bookstore in New York.

The book's success has brought more opportunities to spread the word of The Mvule Project. A promotional DVD featuring Adam's work as well as the efforts of Natalie's class is in production. 

Jay Paul, a close friend of Adam's, now uses the book as a means to pass on his message. He sends it to friends and associates, asking them not just to buy a book, but to purchase an entire tree. 

Jay plans to visit Uganda next summer. He wants to continue the work Adam started. Recalling how great an uncle Adam was to Ben and Kym's young son, Jays says Adam would have loved that these kids were making a difference.

Before his death, Adam had created a list of goals he wanted to accomplish in life. One of his goals was that he live a life worth writing about some day. In an interview with the local Denton newspaper at the book release party, Adam's dad said they would "put 'done' on that one."

by Allison Shumate