Young Annapolitan’s “Coalition for Success” takes local kids to Puerto Rico to Learn Culture, Have Fun & Volunteer

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Brandon's Coalition for Success outside prominent artist, Samuel Lind's, personal home and art studio in Loíza, Puerto Rico, following their special tour of his works.

In 2016, when I was 16 years old, I started Brandon’s Coalition for Success in response to the sharp increase in crime in Annapolis. I was motivated to start the program after noticing that many of my peers with whom I went to elementary and middle school were becoming involved in these negative incidents. When I started the program, I brought together many leaders from Annapolis who were willing to serve as mentors to the youth who joined. Those mentors include psychotherapists, a physician, a Navy Captain, police officers, an entrepreneur, and other city leaders. After gaining their commitment to support the youth of the program, we started meeting every Saturday for two hours at the Eastport-Annapolis Neck Branch Library.

During these meetings, we would focus on the attitude, behavior, academics, leadership, and community service with our mentees. In 2018, our program was nationally recognized when I was awarded HOBY’s most outstanding alumni award (here’s a link to a video that was produced https://vimeo.com/271893859).  

In 2020, I was awarded the Terry Fellowship at Davidson University, which is a merit award offered to two sophomores each year. As part of the fellowship, I was offered $3,000 funding for a project of my choice. I decided to use that money as the start of a fundraiser for a project that would bring ten youth from our mentoring group on a week-long educational trip to Puerto Rico. In July of last year, I started a fundraiser to fund this trip that would cost $38,000.  

Young travelers prepare to travel through a zipline course in Orocovis, Puerto Rico (From left to right: Robbie Dews, Darnae Wright, Jayla Spearman, Darnez Wright, Brandon Harris)

On March 1st of this year, we met our fundraising goal, and we traveled to Puerto Rico on June 19th and returned on June 25th. For our youth, all of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, this was the first opportunity they’ve had to participate in a travel experience like this one.  

We traveled with Vamonos Tours, a company that specializes in cultural immersion student travel. Vamonos Tours is led by Jorge Pardo, who coincidentally is a Davidson graduate. When I was a senior at Indian Creek, I had the opportunity to travel on a relief trip after Hurricane Maria that was led by a Spanish teacher at our school, Maruca García. Ms. García is from Puerto Rico, and recently moved back to live there. She was our tour guide for the entire trip.  

During our trip, we visited 10 different parts of Puerto Rico, ranging from urban to rural spaces. We ziplined in the mountains, slid down a waterfall in the rain forest, visited one of the five bioluminescent bays in the entire world, went snorkeling, participated in Afro-Caribbean dance lessons, and completed several walking tours of urban areas.  

In addition to those activities, we completed three of our four planned service projects on the island. First, we worked at Centro Cristo Pobre, which is a homeless shelter for struggling adults in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Centro Cristo Pobre has a farm that they use to produce food to feed the individuals in their program. We supported their efforts to feed the homeless by planting some rows of vegetables and cleaning the surroundings of their fruit trees.  

3 young travelers gather for a selfie with Brandon while taking in the fabulous view of La Parguera, Puerto Rico (From left to right: Zawaun Tasker, Darnez Wright, Damani Richardson, Brandon Harris)

Our second service activity took place when we traveled to Escuela Superior Thomas Armstrong Toro, a school that was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria, and recently bought by Centro San Francisco in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Centro San Francisco is a privately funded school that specifically works to educate students with special needs. Centro San Francisco has plans to open their newly acquired school in August 2021, so we worked with them to clean the classrooms to make that possible. 

Members of the Coalition for Success having fun at a natural waterslide in El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest.

For our third activity, we traveled to Utuado, Puerto Rico, which is a city located in the mountains towards the center of the island. The community we visited in Utuado is an impoverished one that was also severely impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Our plan in Utuado was to paint their basketball court and playground to make the facilities more presentable for the community’s children to enjoy. When we arrived, consistent rain showers prevented us from being able to paint, so we used that time to meet community members and learn about their experiences living in Utuado before, during, and after Hurricane Maria. 

For our final activity, we traveled to Loíza, Puerto Rico, where we visited Centro Esperanza, a Montessori school that educates children with an overall focus on combatting violence in the community. At Centro Esperanza, our youth had the opportunity to interact with students from the school and participate in gardening and painting projects at the school.  

Our entire trip to Puerto Rico was a successful learning experience for our youth. Having the opportunity to become immersed in another language and culture, to participate in recreational activities that aren’t available in Annapolis, and to complete service projects that will have lasting impacts on Puerto Rican communities was clearly motivational to our youth, and we are excited to see what future success comes for them as a result. 

Young mentors Mo Lloyd and Brandon Harris working with two young travelers to plant vegetables as part of a service activity at Centro Cristo Pobre in Ponce, Puerto Rico. (From left to right: Mo Lloyd, DaRell Wright, Damani Richardson, Brandon Harris)

Brandon Harris is a rising senior at Davidson College in North Carolina majoring in Philosophy and Pre-med. During my sophomore year at Davidson in 2020, he was elected as the third ever Black student-body president. During my junior year, he was re-elected to the role to become the first student in Davidson’s history to be elected to serve two terms as student-body president.  

Harris was born and raised in Annapolis, which is still his home. He attended Hillsmere Elementary and Annapolis Middle School before going to high school at Indian Creek School in Crownsville.  

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Branson’s Coalition for Success Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BradonsCoalitionforSuccess

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