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Out of his comfort zone

College roommate’s death moves Marietta native to volunteer to go to Africa

March 26, 2008
By Erin E. O’Neill,
When Nick Brancato graduated from Marietta High School in 2003, he had no idea where his life’s journey would take him.

But by summer, Brancato and his girlfriend, Amy Dewitt of South Wayne, Wis., will be traveling half a world away to the southwestern tip of Africa.

Brancato, who earned a degree in geoscience, and Dewitt are volunteering with Africa Youth for Peace and Development in Freetown — the capital city of Sierra Leone — for about 10 months. They will be involved in the administrative processes of the group, specifically working to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS.

“We knew we wanted to work with a small, local organization,” Brancato said. “But it was very difficult narrowing it down.”

The couple considered different places, including Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Egypt, but ultimately decided on Sierra Leone.

“We ‘googled’ long-term volunteer opportunities. We were very impressed reading about it (AYPAD),” Brancato said.

A personal tragedy had a profound impact on Brancato and led him to the decision to think about his future and the opportunities to volunteer abroad.

His college roommate, Sean Staelens, took his own life in September, only a few months after they graduated from Northland College in Ashland, Wis. The two had become friends through cross country and planned to move to Seattle. It was a complete shock to Brancato.

“It was tragic, and the worst thing that Nick has had to face in his young life,” said his mom, Victoria Douglas. “He told us that losing his best friend made him re-evaluate his goals and he needed to do something bigger than himself.”

Brancato says, though, that while his mom and dad, Michael, are both extremely proud, they aren’t without reservations.

Sierra Leone is recovering from the repercussions of its civil war, and is listed as the world’s second poorest country by the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index. The U.N. has ranked Sierra Leone as the world’s “least livable” country, based on its poverty and the poor quality of life.

“Safety is one of the things we were looking at in our search,” said Brancato. “After researching Sierra Leone, we found that safety isn’t really that much of an issue anymore. They’re trying to make it more of a tourist destination.”

The Africa Youth for Peace and Development organization was formed in 1995 and was registered in 2000 under the ministry of youth and sport in Sierra Leone as a voluntary, youth development organization aimed at organizing, empowering and creating opportunities for youth and youth groups that are in difficult circumstances.

The mission of the group is to promote education, health care, agriculture and income-generating activities, provide on-the-job training and implement agricultural projects.

“We didn’t want to be involved with anything that would bring in an outside influence,” Brancato said. “This is a local organization that is working on local issues.”

Brancato and Dewitt are going on their own — not with any groups — and are raising funds themselves.

“They are working and saving every penny,” Douglas said.

Travel expenses are $4,000 for each of them, but the experiences are likely to be priceless.

“I really want to challenge myself and get out of the comfort zone,” Brancato said.

If you would like to have more information or offer support, contact Nick Brancato at

Article Photos

MITCH CASEY The Marietta Times
Marietta native Nick Brancato sorts through his backpack and other items he'll be taking on a volunteer trip to Africa. Brancato leaves for Wisconsin later this week and will be heading to Sierra Leone later this spring.

Fact Box

Ways to volunteer
¯ Help teach a child to read.
¯ Help cook and/or serve a meal at a homeless shelter.
¯ Gather clothing from neighbors and donate to a local shelter.
¯ Make “I Care” kits with combs, toothbrushes, shampoo, etc. for the homeless.
¯ Pack and hand out food at a local food bank.
¯ Visit at a nursing home.
¯ Pick up groceries or medicine for an elderly person.
¯ Deliver meals.
¯ Paint a mural over graffiti.
¯ Clean a vacant lot or park.
¯ Volunteer to help at a Special Olympics event.
¯ Read books or the newspaper for visually impaired people.
¯ Bring toys to children in the cancer ward of a hospital.
¯ Register people to vote.
¯ Give blood
¯ Clean up trash along roads.



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