Branch Out Alternative Breaks

Creating a community of active & educated individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice

BON in Rural Virginia

By Alex May

          This spring break, I spent time in rural Virginia.  You probably haven’t heard of the town.  I know that I hadn’t, but I was looking forward to going on my first major service trip, and I didn’t mind that I hadn’t heard of it before.  I didn’t even have a complete understanding as to what we would we doing in rural Virginia for a whole week, but that didn’t bother me, either.  All I knew was we would be working with a non-profit organization, so I waited until we got there to learn more about what we were doing.

            The non-profit organization we worked with is a statewide grassroots organization that aims to make positive change in all communities across the state.  They spread awareness to the people of Virginia about pertinent issues, by which they might not even be aware that they’re being afflicted with, and have a political presence that is slowly, but steadily, growing.

            A grassroots group like the one we worked with is powered by the people that it tries to reach.  Volunteers are absolutely essential, and without them, the organization would fall apart.  Therefore, recruitment is a large part of the day-to-day work.  That’s where we came in.  The organization finds potential new members by canvassing, which is a glamorous word for knocking on strangers’ doors, handing them an informative flyer, and trying to sell their cause in the precious few seconds of time they are given.

            Like many other American children, I was raised never to talk to strangers, let alone ring their doorbells and have political conversations with them.  I’ll admit that I was more than I little nervous as I approached my first house, because I was armed with nothing but a clipboard and a stack of flyers.  Before I knew it, though, I had the pitch down cold, with a few of my own unique twists.  Not long after I was recruiting new members left and right and generating a lot of interest for issues such as protecting social security and voter rights, the winterization of homes, among others.  After that, I went door to door in a housing project and had great conversations with some of the nicest people I’d ever met in my life.  To be honest, I’d never set foot in public housing before, and by that point in the week, it never even occurred to me to think twice about doing it. I was amazed at the hospitality that I received from people of all social classes and all races. I was invited into huge mansions and tiny apartments because people genuinely cared about what I had to say.  It was eye-opening to say the least, because in this day and age, it’s easy to forget to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best in everybody.

            Never again will I be suspicious of strangers just because I’m passing through a “bad area” in town.  Citizens in rural Virginia showed me that the majority of people are friendly, curious, and always looking for a good conversation.

Author: Melody Porter

Hello blogosphere! While I am a relative newcomer to you, I am a long-time fan of human connection. I used to say that my major in college (above my actual political science & religion double major) was in friendships. Conversations over long meals or late nights on dorm hallway floors have been transformative in my life, and it only makes sense to me to dip my toe into new ways of opening up conversation here. Some details about my life and role at W&M: I have worked at William and Mary since August 2008, and am Associate Director in the Office of Community Engagement. I spend my time fostering student leadership in the broad areas of alternative breaks and local anti-poverty initiatives. Doing so lets me fulfill what I understand my calling to be about: working for social justice in the world, and equipping others to do so with skill, sensitivity and great love. And my pre-W&M life... I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Religion from Emory University in 1995. After graduating, I decided to get further into the world of community development and service. I served as a long-term volunteer for three years, beginning a job development program in Philadelphia and working with preschool children in Johannesburg, South Africa. I came back to Emory to earn a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology in 2001, with a focus in religious education. I spent a frenetic and exciting year working four jobs - from TA'ing a preaching class with Tom Long, to catering barbecue, to managing a nonprofit family literacy program with immigrant and refugee families. I went on from there to be Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, working in areas of social justice and community development, and directing an after school program that served more than 100 high school students. Finally, it was one more stop at Emory - where I served for three years as director of Volunteer Emory, a student-led department for community service. Through all of my professional and volunteer experiences, and life in general, I have seen how connected and interdependent people and communities are everywhere I believe in the power of mutual service to transform lives and create social change. I also love cheese fries.

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