When Armenia Tree Project pursued a partnership with Yale University’s Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, the organization first contacted James and Sandra Leitner because they were active supporters of the school and sponsored expeditions for students to work with the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. In fact, when Sandra Leitner was meeting Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai for lunch at Yale, she made a point of telling the Green Belt Movement founder all about ATP’s programs in Armenia.
James has degrees in Economics and Russian Studies and he supports Yale’s forestry school because of its international environmental focus and also because he knew that forestry programs were more challenging to fund than more traditional areas such as law and economics. “These are people who are not always well paid, but they are trying to make the world a better place,” James explained. It was a similar interest that attracted them to ATP and its reforestation programs in Armenia.
Last year, ATP received a $100,000 grant from Conservation International to work with Yale to develop a sustainable forestry manual for Armenia. This two-year program is intended to give ATP the resources and training to teach people in Armenia about using forests in a more sustainable manner, protecting the resource for future generations.
James and Sandra Leitner of New Jersey were instrumental in creating the relationship between ATP and Prof. Chadwick Oliver, director of the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, and the program has been off to a strong start. Yale graduate student Zachary Parisa spent this past summer in Armenia working with volunteers and Armenian forestry students to complete an inventory of the forests between Dilijan and Margahovit Village, where ATP is working in northern Armenia.
In addition, the Leitner Family increased their generous support of ATP to $25,000 in 2007. “We learned about ATP’s founding by Carolyn Mugar after the trees were used for fuel in Armenia during the embargos related to the Karabagh war. We thought it was important to replace the trees that were utilized for that purpose,” emphasized Sandra. “We stayed involved after seeing all the important work being done by ATP to improve the lives of the Armenian people through preservation of the environment.”
“We feel that all aspects of ATP’s mission are inextricably intertwined and equally important. The combination of programs in tree planting, environmental education, and poverty reduction address both the immediate and long-term needs and interests of the country and people,” she explained further. “We were delighted to attend the concert for the organization’s 10th anniversary at Garni Temple in 2004, but it has been ATP’s consistent, diligent, and growing work that led us to increase our commitment. There is more to accomplish and thus a greater need for support.”
James is a member of Yale University’s Investment Committee and the President’s Council on International Activities at the university. Earlier this year, James and Sandra were awarded the St. Gregory the Illuminator Medal of Honor by Catholicos Karekin II.
Sandra–whose maiden name is Shahinian–has long-standing ties to the Armenian community. Her paternal grandparents were great patriots and believers in the Armenia nation. “Their first trip back to Yerevan in the 1960’s had an impact on me as a child,” noted Sandra. “Partly due to their influence, I spent my junior year of college at Yerevan State University, learning Armenian and deepening my connection to the Armenian nation–a connection, which I still feel today.”
Sandra grew up immersed in the Armenian community, and her family’s connection with St. Leon Armenian Church in Fair Lawn, New Jersey goes back to 1990. “We derive great satisfaction from our volunteer work with other families who have an interest in preserving the church for the next generation and encouraging their children to stay connected to the church,” stated Sandra. “We are in the midst of a building campaign to add an education and sports complex to help accomplish that goal.”
Sandra was elected to the Diocesan Council of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America in May. James and Sandra are the proud parents of three children–Allegra, Evan, and Olivia–who are, respectively, students in law school, college, and high school. The Leitners also support human rights programs at Fordham Law School and the Yale School of Nursing. “It is important to us to try to leave the world a better place,” they concluded.
Based in Watertown and Yerevan, Armenia Tree Project has made enormous strides in combating desertification in the biologically diverse but threatened Caucasus region. Over 1.5 million trees have been planted and restored, and hundreds of jobs have been created for Armenia’s in seasonal tree-regeneration programs. For more information, visit the Web site www.ArmeniaTree.org.