I read about The 6th Branch before I volunteered with them. A friend of mine had a positive volunteer experience with the organization and, knowing that I was skeptical of most volunteer opportunities yet civic-minded, she encouraged me to read up on the organization’s work in the Oliver community. In my casual research, I came across an essay that had been submitted to the Governor’s Compassionate Marylander Award written by Rich Blake, co-founder and current Chairman of the Board of The 6th Branch.
I was immediately struck by the call to action implicit in the essay. I have worked in the Baltimore non-profit world for the past five years and have seen a fair share of well-intentioned essays about service. I am not cynical about service—I am serious about work taking place in our shared Baltimore community. My experience is that many organizations and volunteers feel that intention is everything but actual execution is a distant secondary concern. I was prepared to encounter the same with The 6th Branch—nothing but a pile of good intentions. I found something much more substantial.
In one simple essay, it was clear that The 6th Branch’s appeal to service never needed to rise above a simple, basic humanity. While partners of all faiths are both welcome and necessary in the movement to transform Baltimore through meaningful work in its neighborhoods, what resonated with me most was the simplicity of the human call to action. It remains quite simple: There are basic needs to be met in Oliver and we—as a team of veterans, civilians and intelligent citizens of all walks—have the resources to meet them. So let’s stop talking and get to work.
So I read a good essay. Awesome. I still had to show up to see if The 6th Branch would be worth my Saturday morning.
When I joined for my first project, I helped fill a 40 cubic foot dumpster with trash picked up within a ten block radius. We went from street to street, removing everything from mattresses and broken furniture to syringes and the debris of drunken nights in long vacant lots. At some point, I stepped in an aromatic mix of mud and old milk while holding a one-eyed teddy bear. I felt a sense of both accomplishment and absolute futility. Were we simply enabling the community to throw their trash out on the street? Had I been duped into spending my valuable Saturday at a meaningless project with some well-intentioned organization that cared more about their own ideas than listening to community-identified needs?
I decided to show up again to see if any of the areas cleaned from my first project had stayed that way. I received a mixed answer: Some had remained reasonably clean; others had been piled with more garbage. This second project took place in the early spring, so in addition to litter removal, there was gardening work. I heard stories about the up-to-our-eyeballs amount of trash that had been removed to make space for the garden. Even though I didn’t personally have the before-and-after pictures in hand, I got the sense that The 6th Branch had larger plans for the community than to just pick up trash. I had a small window through which to glimpse the marks of true progress.
So I kept going with it. I’m proud to say that I’ve been volunteering for a year with The 6th Branch and can attest to the fact that the areas where we consistently dedicate time and resources have been transformed from either piles of trash or anonymous urban spaces into vibrant playscapes for youth and residents. This is the value of the work being done on a very basic level, to say nothing of new programs The 6th Branch has brought to the community, including direct support for the Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School, the Oliver Farm Stand that brings fresh local produce into this food insecure area, colorful and well-planned murals that animate the neighborhood, and Days of Play for community youth.
I encourage you to be as skeptical of service and as serious about your time as I am. I am positive that you will find that The 6th Branch is all about getting things done as efficiently and intelligently as possible. I encourage you to reach out to me or any board member to learn more about our work. We’re liable to answer your questions quickly but thoroughly and then hand you a shovel, paintbrush or tree. You don’t have to be a veteran or a philanthropist. You can be just like me: A citizen invested in Baltimore who has a head, a heart and hands ready for work.
So come join us.