Brian Millward was sweating, being bit by mosquitoes, and getting rained on in a jungle in Costa Rica when he had an epiphany.
In 2018 he spent four months in Costa Rica volunteering at The Sloth Institute, using radio collar tracking to observe and take notes on sloths.
During an experience that would be uncomfortable for most people, Millward found a sense of calmness in that moment and experienced a change of perception.
“It was a very big full circle of reminding myself that there was a five-year-old who would have done anything to get where I had been,” he says.
As the community programs manager for the non-profit organization, Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests, also known as LEAF, Millward oversees all the organization’s community programs.
Millward hosted LEAF’s last community tree planting event of the season in Richmond Hill on Oct. 21. With the help of volunteers and staff, 500 native shrubs and trees were planted to improve York Region’s urban forest.
LEAF not only focuses on planting trees but also ensures that there are plans in place for the trees to receive continued stewardship and care. “So really our mission, the big picture, is to protect and enhance the urban forest,” Millward says.
At age 33-years-old he currently lives in Toronto, where he was born and raised. The city first ignited his childlike admiration and love for urban forests. Growing up, Millward always had a fascination with his surroundings. “I was obsessed with not just the nature that was around me, but I just loved learning about the diversity of life around the world,” he says.
He remembers as a child his friends always had a cottage to flee to, to escape the city and enjoy nature. His family didn’t have access to a cottage, so they found ways to enjoy the nature around them, without having to leave the city.
“I remember my mom always taking me around to the nearby ravines, taking me to High Park, finding these areas of nature that we could engage with, that we could explore and really enjoy,” Millward says.
He continues to prioritize engaging with nature today both in his professional and personal life. “I think it’s important when we become adults to not forget that initial motivation that got us started, that piqued our interest, and to still nurture that very childlike fun part about just being outside,” he says.
Millward incorporates nature in his daily life by jogging, riding his bike through ravine systems and participating in community naturalization groups.
In 2019 he received his Master of Environmental and Life Sciences from Trent University. After receiving his Masters, Millward joined LEAF as the Stewardship Coordinator.
“I was looking to also utilize my skills that I gained through my childhood, which had a lot to do with performance, public speaking and talking and engaging with people,” he says.
LEAF focuses on teaching and supporting others to grow and sustain the urban forest, while also ensuring there are plans in place for the trees to reach full maturity.
“One of the great things about LEAF, is that they do not just plant a tree in the ground and wish it well and walk away,” says Natasha Jovanovic, one of LEAF’s fall naturalization assistants.
“They really put in the work and take the time to care for their trees and make sure that they’re following the best practices,” she says.
Some of the programs that Millward oversees include the community tree planting and stewardship events, presentations, workshops and tours.
As well as urban forest demonstration gardens, youth programs, and the Toronto housing planting and stewardship programs. LEAF’s service areas include Toronto, York Region and Durham Region.
Millward finds a lot of his motivation and inspiration from interacting with others.
Jovanovic, says like most of the staff, her relationship with Brian is very fun yet professional. “There’s always a lot of laughter and joking around when we’re out in the field together and getting the work done is made pretty fun,” she says.
Konya Bangura, also one of LEAF’s naturalization assistants for this fall, says she would describe Millward as “wholesome.”
The staff of LEAF all share a common love for nature and similar core values as well.
Bangura says these core values include respectful communication, caring for and supporting others as well as oneself, and embracing diversity and inclusion.
For Millward, the people he meets at the events is what he loves most about his job. “That really does make the work that we do so worthwhile, to see those folks get engaged and excited,” he says.
LEAF’S community tree planting events will begin again in the early spring of 2024 within York and Durham Region. Visit www.yourleaf.org for more information on upcoming events and workshops.
For people who have a passion for the environment, Millward believes it’s important to continue to seek out the joy and wonder of nature. “I think that’s why so many of us get involved in this field, as we have some sort of childhood recollection of being in awe of a natural space that’s around us.”