Traveling for change

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January 25, 2011

12:06 AM

Instead of sitting on the couch watching endless amounts of television and eating their parent’s food, some students spent their winter breaks fishing for tilapia in Belize, giving workshops on HIV and AIDS prevention and care in Tanzania, or making house calls to diagnose and treat patients in Nicaragua. As part of Branch Out International’s alternative breaks, the College of William and Mary volunteers have once-in-a-lifetime experiences, all in the spirit of service, community involvement and personal growth.

“The mission of Branch Out alternative breaks is to engage students in diverse, quality alternative breaks so that they become active and educated members of society,” Associate Director of the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship and trip manager Melody Porter said. “We met with team leaders for international winter alternative breaks to hear about their experiences, and I heard of several examples of our mission being achieved.”

The groups’ objectives, projects and approaches to their respective issues varied greatly. Based on these factors and the needs of their specific hosting communities, each group has had unique encounters with those they helped.

For two weeks, William and Mary students for Belize Education worked with a school and a children’s home for girls encouraging higher education. Team members tried to improve their hosts’ educational experience by donating a computer and a printer, substitute teaching, teaching lessons on healthy life choices, and sharing their own experiences in higher education.

Although the group’s main projects were centered on education, its first priority was meeting the needs of the community. Students decided on additional projects by asking community members what needed to be done. In response to this feedback they built a bathroom, cleaned out a dilapidated house, painted rooms, helped fishing for tilapia that the children’s home sells to raise money, and set up basketball hoops and volleyball nets.

According to trip leader Haley Wright ’11, tailoring their plans to meet the community’s needs instead of sending money or entering with their own assumptions, showed the locals that the team really wanted to help while at the same time showing team members the rewards of community interaction.

“Us going there gives them a face,” Wright said. “It’s not just money thrown at them. It’s showing them that we really do care about them. Another part of it’s just the cross-cultural exchange and inspiring our own team members to do service throughout their lifetimes.”

AIDS Tanzania also learned to be flexible during its week-long trip to Imbaseni village in the Arusha region of Tanzania. With the goals of HIV and AIDS education, testing and outreach in mind, students boarded the plane expecting to come face-to-face with AIDS stigmatization and questions on the science behind HIV and AIDS transmission. Not long after, they realized that the stigma had greatly lessened and that locals were more concerned with prevention and post-diagnosis information than they were with the details of transmission.

“We had gone in thinking that the biggest thing to work on was the social stigma attached to HIV and the fact that they don’t know how it’s transmitted, but really they were just thinking, ‘What do I do if I’m HIV positive?’” AIDS Tanzania member Kat Bernardo ’11 said. “They were more forward thinking, focused on treatment. It was refreshing to see that kind of progress.”

The group responded by creating youth-oriented informational booklets and distributing them at secondary schools. The booklets complemented the workshops, forums, AIDS testing days and question-and-answer sessions they held over the span of a week.

Like AIDS Tanzania, William and Mary Medical Relief is also medically focused while allowing students to interact with community members in two towns in Managua, Nicaragua by diagnosing and treating infections. The group spent three days in each town: The first day was spent making house calls and setting up appointments, and the final two days were spent in the clinics they had set up.

One of the communities the team spent time in, La Chureca, is situated on a landfill. Many of the most serious medical cases the team encountered were directly related to environmental factors and the lack of education on infection prevention.

Student efforts provided hope to people in these difficult situations. WMMR trip leader Molly McDonough ’12 met with a woman around her age whose face was partially paralyzed from having been hit by a car as a child. Subsequently, she’d been raped and contracted HIV. She was visiting the clinic for treatment for a full body staph infection. According to McDough, the team remembered her not for these aspects, but for her kindness and the rewards of compassion.

“I was so glad we were able to see her, just because we were able to make her feel special and show her that somebody cared,” McDonough said. “It’s so highly stigmatized and many clinicians won’t even see people who have HIV. She was just a really wonderful woman.”

McDough said the program appealed to multiple student interests.

“We have people from our trip going into all different things — medicine, public health, environmental policy and law,” McDonough said. “I think that these trips just show everybody how you can use whatever education you ultimately attain to do something really positive.”

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