Spring Break Service: Branch Out Alternative Breaks offer volunteer projects, emphasizes education


Branch Out Alternative Breaks, a program offered by the Office of Civic and Community Engagement at the College of William and Mary, allows students to participate in educational service projects alongside local communities over their academic breaks. The program is free and open to all students. Branch Out is led by Director of the Office of Community Engagement Melody Porter and it comprises student coordinators and leaders.

This past spring break, a group led by site leaders Rachael Rademacher ’26 and Sahan Raghavan ’24 collaborated with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an organization with a focus on environmental justice and saving the Chesapeake Bay. Raghavan outlined the trip’s schedule.

“We started by being introduced to the foundation and speaking to some William and Mary alumni, as well as other employees of the organization,” Raghavan said. “We helped with oyster restoration efforts by cleaning the cages as well as bagging a lot of the shells that we were able to provide homes for. I believe it was 600,000 oysters — baby oysters. These oysters serve as a filter in the bay — a natural filter — which is why they want to restore it, and there’s been a 98% decline in the population.”

Participant Lindsay Fisher ’26 added that in addition to oyster restoration, the group also helped plant vegetation.

“The last three days, we were mostly focused on repairing buffer planting, so planting trees to trap runoff that flows into the bay,” Fisher said. “We were actually on a farm, planting those trees. And then, the last two days, we helped to pot native plants that will eventually go to those farms.”

After each trip, the group engages in reorientation, which redirects what they’ve learned “inwards.” Rademacher explained the process of reorientation.

“Sometimes reorientation could be volunteering with a specific group, like the Williamsburg Community Growers, or even just continuing education, like watching a documentary and discussing it, or making infographics to share around campus there,” Rademacher said. “It’s more about taking the information from the community we were in and applying it to our own community.”

For the reorientation of this past spring break, Bay Advocacy Institute (an organization within the Chesapeake Bay Foundation) visited campus Saturday, March 23. Fisher discussed the plan for these guest speakers. 

“They’re going to talk to us about funding environmental restoration programs, specifically nonprofit development, and then just general Virginia state policy and advocacy,” Fisher said. “So more focusing on, if you can’t do direct service, how can you advocate through policy.”

Branch Out’s mission focuses on education, Raghavan explained. This goal is maintained throughout the club’s entire process. This process begins as students first learn about social justice issues and the community they will engage with, then, during the trip, they are in constant conversation with the community partners. At the end of each day, students will reflect upon their work and its impact on themselves and the community, and after the trip, this conversation is continued through reorientation.

Rademacher gave insight as to why education is so important to social justice.

“I think education is very important, because if people don’t know the issues, then how can we expect anything to change?” Rademacher said.

In addition to education, a pillar of Branch Out is its value of mutually beneficial partnerships. This means that both parties, the students and the communities they serve, are learning and helping each other while strengthening their connections.

“Not only are we helping them, but they are also helping us too and teaching us on the social justice issues we encounter there,” Raghavan said.

Fisher provided her own reasoning for why this value of mutually beneficial partnerships is so important.

“I feel so lucky that I can learn so much about these organizations and the issues they address,” Fisher said. “But it’s also great to see how we’re able to give back to them. Almost every trip I’ve gone on, the community partners always say, ‘We couldn’t have done this much work in such little time without you here.’”

This spring break was their most recent trip, but Branch Out has been facilitating these trips for a while. Previous trips have included visiting a farm in Lynchburg, Virginia, which focused on sustainable agriculture and primarily employed people with disabilities. Another was to Mullens, West Virginia, which focused on rural poverty and rural community development.

Branch Out has a large emphasis on community, both with community partners and within the program itself. Members have different reasons for joining, but one recurring reason is the appeal of being a part of a community, with similar interests of giving back.

“I choose to spend breaks there because I feel like there’s so much going on in the world.” Raghavan said. “It’s refreshing to hear from people who are trying to help too, when you’re on a break and see professionals making a career out of volunteering and serving their community.”

Fisher, a double major in integrative conservation and environmental sustainability, adds that the diverse community inspires her to reach beyond her area of interest.

“It was really inspiring to see the diversity of majors that came on this trip,” Fisher said. “That really motivated me to try out other breaks that maybe aren’t environmentally focused. At the core of it, of course, it’s interesting just for what I’m studying, but I do just love being able to give back.”

For those interested in joining, Branch Out offers weekend trips that operate the same way as breaks, but on a smaller scale. These trips are a great opportunity for people who want to be involved with Branch Out and community service but can’t necessarily take the time off for a full break. Additional information can be found on the club’s GivePulse.

Ultimately, Branch Out makes a distinction between its education-focused social justice work and the concept of charities. Its goal is to directly engage with communities and develop a strong, lasting relationship, rather than a one-off service. 

“Charity doesn’t necessarily have an impact that addresses root causes,” Rademacher said. “It’s more of a Band-Aid on an issue, whereas justice-based service can help heal things.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here