by Azucena Portillo

I had the amazing opportunity to participate on an alternative spring break trip with Branch Out. We spent a week primarily working with the Fan Free Clinic in Richmond. This was my first time ever participating in an alternative spring break, so I was not sure exactly what to expect. Originally I thought that we were going to be performing some sort of service throughout the week. But after attending all the meetings with my group before the trip, I found out that we were going to be working with more than one organization, and learning what services they provided for the community.

I learned a few things during the pre-trip meetings, such as logistical things and the background information about Branch Out, but it wasn’t until the actual trip that I learned about the social justice issues that we were going to be dealing with. During the pre-trip meetings we learned about the demographic that the Fan Free Clinic caters to. We learned that they focused on the LGBTQ community and that they provided medical services, including HIV testing, mental counseling, and other primary health services, all free of charge. We only scratched the surface when it came to discussing what leads certain people in the community to need such services.  In other words, the whole trip ahead was a big mystery.

When we attended our first meeting with the staff at the Fan Free Clinic, they gave us a tour of the facility and several of their staff members introduced themselves and explained what roles they played. I was impressed by the level of dedication and care that the staff showed for their jobs.  Although it was a free clinic, they talked about their clients with such enthusiasm and a level of respect that made me forget they offered their services free of charge. During their presentation, they discussed the difficulties that came with providing their services to the clients.  The reason was because most of the clients they catered to are often dealing with addiction and homelessness. They explained that they try their best to provide the best services they can with the limited resources available.

Throughout the week we had the opportunity to visit and learn from other organizations around Richmond that collaborated with the clinic. For example, we had the chance to visit The Healing Place which is an organization that focuses on helping males struggling with addiction by providing them shelter and a long term program. Our group spent one of the evenings getting to know the clients at the facility after hearing Susan, from The Fan Free Clinic, give her speech about their free AIDS testing services. This experience gave the group a great opportunity to get a one-on-one interaction with members of the community. The clients were able to open up to us and tell us a little about their experiences, and what led them to this point in their lives. We learned that the men at the facility came from diverse backgrounds, they had fallen into addiction for one reason or another, but they all seemed thankful to have access to organizations such as the Healing Place to help them out through such a difficult time in their lives.

We also had the chance to visit the Chesterfield Women’s Diversion Center, which is a program offered to eligible non-violent felons. This programs allows eligible felons to serve a much shorter sentence, and it helps the women get back into the labor market.  One of the first things I noticed, once had the chance to meet the inmates, was the fact they the majority of the women were white. I would say about 90-95 percent of them were of Caucasian origin.  The women had a chance to ask us questions, and we also got the chance to ask them a bit about their stay at the facility. Most of the women talked about their struggles with addiction, and their fear of going being released back into the world without a safety net. Getting to hear the hopes and fears of the different women at the facility made realize how important it was to have programs that help people that have fallen into hard times.

Another memorable experience of our trip was when we got the chance to tour Richmond and learn about its history and racial disparity.  We also heard from Ben Campbell, author of Unhealed History. We learned about the deep rooted racial divide between African Americans and whites that has impacted Richmond for several decades. Mr. Campbell talked about some his attempts to create a better transportation system, something which is severely lacking in the area.  He explained how race issues served as a major roadblock to such project because they impact a certain group of people.  The issue with public transportation was echoed by several people we met throughout our stay in Richmond.  It will be interesting to see if Mr. Campbell’s proposal will be adopted.

After spending a week in Richmond, working and learning from the staff at The Fan Free clinic and its affiliated partners, I feel like I have a much deeper appreciation for all the work that such organizations do for their communities. Getting to meet the staff and hearing from their experiences was extremely insightful, but more than anything, I loved getting to hear directly from the community members themselves.  I was not prepared for how emotionally exhausting each day was going to be. But I feel that it was important to hear their stories directly, no matter how hard it was to hear their truths.  It made me think about my own vulnerabilities as well as my privileges that I get to enjoy every day. Although I was already aware that we don’t all get the same opportunities in life, it was nice to be confronted with this reality and see how other people cope with difficult times.

I learned a lot during my alternative break with Branch Out. The most important lesson I took from this whole experience was realizing how vital it is for us to get involved in our communities.  There is always a way to help, no matter how small. Even if it means donating food items to your local shelter or donating a little bit of your time. By getting involved in our own community we get to meet a portion of the population that we might otherwise not get a chance to interact with. We never know what could happen to us down the line and it would be nice to know that there are people who care for those who cannot care for themselves because they are going through difficult times. Being aware of social issues in our communities also allows to become better citizens overall. I think that if more people got involved in their communities we would have a more tolerable world.