Getting Dirty: Branch Out spreads service opportunities among students

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September 21, 2010

12:15 AM

Palm City Beach, Fla. wasn’t her destination, MTV shows weren’t her inspiration and the insane parties of Spring Break weren’t on her agenda. Katherine Eklund ’12 was headed to the inner-city schools of Charlotte, N.C. for her alternative spring break as part of the Branch Out National program at the College of William and Mary. As a sophomore, she visited Charlotte to work with Teach for America.

The Branch Out program at the College has three parts: Branch Out Regional, Branch Out National and Branch Out International. The difference lies in the location and cost of the trips. While Branch Out Regional generally costs between $5 and $25, the trips are mainly local and last from one to two days. The trips are spread throughout the year and begin this September with a trip to Camp Baker in Richmond. Branch Out National only travels during spring break. The trips cost $250 and range in location from Philadelphia, Pa. to South Carolina. Branch Out International generally costs significantly more; however, as a team, groups host fundraisers to lower the cost. From Belize to China, Branch Out International affects communities around the world through sustainable service.

The opportunity to work closely with the students at Teach for America showed Eklund how her volunteer service directly affects the individuals. In addition to Teach for America, Branch Out National also works with programs such as Habitat for Humanity. Before each trip, the programs educate student volunteers on the needs of the community.

“When we work closely with the community partners and programs to develop sustainable service, we create a relationship that allows us to know the individuals,” said Eklund, co-director of Branch Out National. “Branch Out gives me an outlet to combine the academic side of college [with] serving directly and helps me put a face on the numbers and statistics.”

Branch Out International takes service trips to countries such as Haiti, Ghana and Tanzania during the winter, spring and summer breaks. With 10 trips to various countries, the students at Branch Out International focus on sustainable service within different countries. They work closely with community members and organizations to develop service projects.

“During my trip to Honduras last winter, I not only had the opportunity to teach and work on constructing the new education center for Villa Soleada, but [I also] was able to spend time learning how to prepare traditional Honduran dishes and struggling to master salsa with the children,” Taylor Hurst ’12, a recent participant on a Branch Out International trip, said.

While Branch Out National and International focus on larger communities, Branch Out Regional centers on sustainable service within Virginia. With trips to places such as Camp Baker, Dayspring Farm and the Eastern Shore, Branch Out Regional offers affordable and convenient service trips.

“I’ve done both Branch Out International and Branch Out National trips, but what drew me to Branch Out Regional was being able to see how issues affect the local level,” Megan Taylor ’11, co-director of Branch Out Regional, said.

On a service trip to Dayspring Farm last year, Taylor and her group learned about sustainable agriculture within Virginia. The students were able to work directly with the owners of the farm to learn how sustainable farming can benefit the environment.

“It definitely changed my view on food choices. I learned how even small day to day decision can make a difference,” Taylor said.

While some students in the Branch Out programs have previous experience with volunteer service. Participants can send in applications to any of the three branches in order to join a trip. The groups generally have 10 to 20 students, with two site leaders.

“We want students from all walks of life,” Eklund said. “Anyone who has an interest in the issues can apply for the programs.”

As a large program, Branch Out looks to make a difference in the communities and organizations it serves. The three programs of Branch Out all emphasize sustainable service that transcends societal boundaries. After the trips, the students continue to meet to discuss the implications of their service.

“When you come back, you’re sort of on a high,” Eukland said. “You have a deeper understanding of the issues at hand and you form relationships with a group of individuals that last well beyond a week.”

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