by Rebekah Koch
April 2013

When I signed up for the Branch Out Alternative Break trip, I was just looking for an excuse to not go home during spring break. I expected the trip to be a simple service trip with a couple of projects and call it a day. When I learned about the pre-trip planning and preparation we had to do, I thought about dropping the trip. Spring break marked the end of my two month long internship, a week off of work, and successfully making it through five midterms. I was not about to add additional work onto my plate. I gradually pushed off the pre-trip information and research we had to do and hoped that either no one would notice or they would just kick me off the team.

It became very obvious to me from the start that this trip was more than just a couple of service projects. We began contemplating the issue of labor rights from the beginning of our trip. Yes, in the van. I was ready for some quality naptime. My team, however, was planning on how we were going to eat on $5 a day for the next week. I hoped that our first night would be relaxing as we settled in. Instead we volunteered immediately after dinner at the food shelter at the church where we were staying. I realized that I was being asked to give when I felt like I had nothing left in me.

Our trip did consist of several service projects. We served food in homeless shelters, did renovations on a house, sold street newspapers, and did phone banking and collected signatures. However, the service projects we did were different from service work I had done before. Instead of serving for these organizations or helping out homeless people, we stood side-by-side with them fighting for social justice and contemplating the effects of labor injustice in Philadelphia. One of the unique aspects of this trip was the interaction we had with the homeless people we came in contact with. Whenever we talked with them or worked with them, any hierarchical boundary that existed vanished. During dinner, we ate the dinner we served them and ate with them at the same table. We sold their newspapers for their profit. We helped them renovate the home they were living in. We were on the same level. What I began to realize was that this boundary that existed was all in my head.

I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. but I spent a lot of time in DC because my parents worked there. Homeless people didn’t phase me. Actually, I was raised to assume that all homeless people were drug addicts or alcoholics who ruined their lives and chose to not pull it together. Homelessness was not a concern of mine. The homeless people in the parks in DC became just a part of the setting; there were the trees, the birds, and the homeless.

I had this incredible yet obvious realization that homeless people were people too. And that actually, they were no different than you or me. Many of the stories that I heard during the week were about how one day they were let off of work and because our economy is so poor they haven’t been able to find a job since. No job, no income, you can’t pay the bills, and you’re on the streets. The most shocking realization was that this could happen to me. When I realized that these people were alcoholics or classified “crazies” I began to listen more to what these people had to say. These people had ideas. They had dreams and aspirations. They had goals and plans. They wanted to go to school. They wanted a good job. They wanted a family. They wanted change. But even more they wanted to be that change. These people aren’t waiting around for more church groups to open more homeless shelters or bring them more blankets and socks. They want legislation and enforcement of this legislation to bring equality and justice to society. These people are ready to make a difference not only for themselves but also for the rest of society and for the future of their community. The problem is no one will listen to them.

This leads to my second takeaway from this trip: the importance of finding your “ism.” It’s no longer enough to fix the symptoms the societies problems. It’s time to take a stand and create a change. But once I became pumped up to change the world, I was overcome with the disappointment that I couldn’t fix the world. I, Rebekah Koch, personally and by myself can’t take on every single issue in this world. And the independent, self-sufficient, over-achiever that I am was not okay with this. But the other problem I dealt with was that I wasn’t passionate about every issue. So am I a terrible person for not being able to fix the world but also not being passionate about it?

No. But what we do need to do is to stay active. We need to find our “ism,” our cause, our passion. Mine could be labor rights or it could not. But the important thing is to find your “ism” and act on it now. Not when you’re out of school. Not when you’re older. Now.

I came home from the trip excited to tell people about what I had learned. My friends and family didn’t understand why I had given up time, money, and energy that I didn’t have to go on this trip when I could have been at home relaxing and catching up on the work that I was behind on. What I hope to convey to people going forward is the importance of giving back and standing up against the social injustice in our communities. I’m now looking for my “ism” and I’m ready to make a change. Are you?