The Sea Islands Society is happy to recognize Danielle Breidung as the inaugural Lowcountry Emerging Leader. Breidung is a program coordinator for the Lowcountry Area Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Coalition and a Civic Engagement Coordinator on the University of South Carolina Beaufort campus. Although her career initially involved expanding economic opportunities available to small agricultural cooperatives in the Brazilian Amazon, she is now focused on fostering empowerment in the Lowcountry through collaboration with human services organizations.

Tell me about your background and why you chose a career in public service?

I was raised on a dairy farm in Waunakee, Wisconsin: a village of 11,000 people. My family and I actively participated in 4-H throughout my childhood, and it was largely within this context that I developed a strong sense of community. While attending Washington and Lee University and participating in the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability, I began exploring careers that would fulfill my intellectual curiosity, address social justice concerns, and incorporate my passion for Latin America and the Caribbean. Initially my career involved expanding the economic opportunities available to small agricultural cooperatives in the Brazilian Amazon. Now I am focused on fostering empowerment in the Lowcountry through collaboration with human services and other organizations. Rather than thinking of my professional endeavors in the context of public service, I see my career path as being uniquely my own with a focus on positively contributing to the greater good.

I understand that you lived and worked in Brazil for some time. What were you involved with there and what did you bring back from your experiences?

Initially, I went to Brazil to immerse myself in the country’s culture and the Portuguese language. Six months in Manaus at the Federal University of the Amazon was not nearly enough, and I jumped at the opportunity to conduct a supply-chain study involving an Amazonian super-fruit called camu-camu. For six weeks I traveled with members of an agricultural cooperative along the Rio Negro from Manaus to remote Amazonian villages for the purpose of documenting and quantifying all aspects of the harvest, transport, processing, and exportation of this super-fruit. After data collection and qualitative interviews were complete, I wrote a comprehensive report – in both Portuguese and English – of my findings, which caught the attention of an entrepreneur from the United States who was interested in developing and selling camu-camu-based dietary supplements. Our partnership began in May 2011 and eventually involved me moving to Manaus to manage the Brazilian side of our business endeavor. Serving in a managerial capacity in a male-dominated industry and society from age 21 to 23 taught me a great deal about patience, persistence, and the importance of a good sense of humor. Although it was difficult to establish rapport with the individuals with whom I contracted in order to export 60 tons of camu-camu to the United States, I eventually gained respect because of my strong work ethic and integrity.

Please tell me about your work as a program coordinator for the Lowcountry Area VITA Coalition. What is the mission of this organization and how does it help residents of the
Lowcountry?

The Lowcountry Area VITA Coalition is one of the pillars of Together for Beaufort County – a community-wide collaborative process to identify and address specific issues confronting the citizens of Beaufort County. The Coalition provides free income tax assistance to individuals and families with low-to-moderate income, disabilities, and/or limited English-language proficiency. Each year since 2008, approximately 50 IRS-certified volunteers in the Lowcountry, but especially Beaufort County, have dedicated thousands of hours between February and mid-April to the preparation and e-filing of approximately 2,000 state and federal income tax returns. The impact of this program is two-fold. One, having access to free tax preparation services encourages residents who otherwise may have chosen not to file their taxes to do so and thereby gain access to tax credits for which they are eligible. In 2015, for example, VITA volunteers helped return over $3 million to the local economy in the form of tax refunds. Two, the provision of free income tax preparation helps residents in the three previously mentioned categories retain and redirect the money they may otherwise have paid to file their taxes for other purposes.

You’re also working as the Civic Engagement Coordinator on the University of South Carolina-Beaufort campus. What are the benefits of volunteering for the university students and how do they give back to the community?

There are so many benefits associated with volunteering during college. One thing I emphasize, particularly while speaking with first-year college students, is that volunteer experience represents a terrific way to enhance and diversify one’s skills. It can also provide an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in different fields, roles, and causes even before they declare their majors or begin applying for jobs.

During the 2014-2015 academic year, for example, 890 USCB students dedicated nearly 50,000 hours to co-curricular community service. USCB students consistently give back to our community by engaging in internships, enrolling in service-learning classes, and participating in long- and short-term service projects either individually or as part of a group. USCB’s Office of Student Life also sponsors an Alternative Spring Break trip, which I have had the pleasure of coordinating for the past two years, that immerses students in service for a week. Most recently a group of seven USCB students and I volunteered with Water Mission International, an organization that provides safe water solutions worldwide, at its headquarters in North Charleston.

What role do young leaders play in the Lowcountry?

Young leaders in the Lowcountry can be found in all professional sectors and organizations. Regardless of their job title or membership status, young leaders consistently infuse energy and new ideas into the region, while first seeking to understand existing ways of doing things. Young leaders see the Lowcountry as a place where opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship, and collaboration are abundant. Many young leaders also acknowledge the importance of environmental sustainability, cultural sensitivity, and ensuring that everyone has access to opportunity. From this perspective, the Lowcountry is a perfect place for young leaders with passion, drive, and a willingness to try – regardless of whether or not they succeed the first time – to transform their visions for a better future into reality.

Finally, what are your thoughts and suggestions for how we can improve the Lowcountry for residents moving forward?

The Lowcountry is one of the finest places to live. I have visited 31 countries on 6 continents, and there is nowhere I would rather call home. With this being said, there are a few aspects of life in the Lowcountry that could be improved. For instance, access to affordable and safe housing is a challenge for many members of our community. It is important for teachers, law enforcement officers, and other professionals who are essential to our community’s well-being to be able to live where they work. Moreover, the Lowcountry could do more to celebrate its population’s diversity and to encourage cultural sensitivity as well as proficiency in languages other than English. This region’s pristine environment is one of its most alluring qualities; thus, continued protection of irreplaceable natural resources is a fundamental component of current and future Lowcountry residents’ well-being.

The views expressed are those of the respective author. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: dazzler709 via Flickr CC