by Ryan Stroup
Being part of a community has always been important to me. I always find myself drawn to simpler times, of the 1950’s or the Old West, when everyone did their part and worked together to make the place they lived a great place. A town where you walk down the street and everyone knows your name and what you give to make your community work, you feel a sense of satisfaction in building a community. Compassion and helping others has always been a part of me, and while in high school, I got heavily involved in the Buddy Program, volunteering almost all my free time to be a friend of students with physical and developmental disabilities. A while after college, I worked as a TSS (Therapeutic Support Staff) for children with behavioral and emotional problems. I then started focusing more on my art career and realizing that Harrisburg, PA was not the place for me anymore, I relocated to Philadelphia.
Last year I knew it was time to move on from PA, and chose Baltimore, MD. I started reading about different groups that are working in the city and came across The 6th Branch’s website. I read about what they do and was intrigued. I knew I wanted to get involved, so I sent a message on their site with a brief introduction and within about a minute and a half after I clicked ‘send’, I received a reply from Rich Blake, Executive Director, asking me to call him immediately to discuss the opportunity.
I have always struggled with the feeling of acceptance, and finding a place I feel like I fit in, a theme that follows me throughout my life. I’ve struggled to find a location and a group of friends that made me feel like I belong. I will never forget the day I drove to Baltimore to meet them, and I talked about what I do and what I can bring to the table. A one hour meeting turned into a whole day of discussion and socializing, and these guys, I had met only hours ago, made me feel like we had known each other for years. I could barely even remember everyone’s names (and if you know me well, you are aware I have a hard time remembering names and put in the spotlight, I have gotten nervous and forgotten my OWN name), but I could feel the connection and acceptance from them.
After you give up yourself and built your entire adult life around something, only to find it suddenly come to an end, the overwhelming feeling of losing the only identity you have come to know can be more than you can handle. I have often felt insignificant, unimportant, that what I have to offer doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Before I met these guys, I felt lost, and had no direction…I was starting over and didn’t know where to go or what path to take. Some days, it seemed as though I didn’t have a lot of options. Coming to find my place within The 6th Branch and working on Operation: Oliver has given me something to focus on, allowed me to create my own identity, and offered me the chance to take charge of something that I believe in and am passionate about.
I have finally found a way to take my two main passions in life, Art and Gardening, and bridge them together in what I do, every day. I come back from a great meeting, or an exciting idea, and I am given the confidence in myself that I had not felt in a very long time…belief in me, and how I can make a difference in my community by doing what I love. The 6th Branch and the support of all those involved has given me that back, and helped me rebuild the “you can do anything as long as you work at it” hopefulness I used to own. That support and encouragement from them means more than they can ever comprehend.
A naysayer was once quoted saying that it was a bad image seeing these veterans walking around in their “army green T-shirts”, and to that I have to say, being a civilian and resident living in a neighborhood that is probably much worse than Oliver, that I would be thrilled to see these folks doing their work in my neighborhood. They walk around, not with machine guns and rifles looking for a battle, but with loving hearts and kind souls. All they do is care about helping people in need and making a difference for those who are struggling for help. They have been not only my colleagues in the work we do, but I am proud they have included me as their friend. The generosity and sincere compassion that drives them to give their lives for their efforts, inspires me each and every day, and pushes me to devote myself into doing everything I can to help them in their mission. I thank each and every one of you at The 6th Branch for all that you have given me and helped me with, and above all, becoming my closest friends.