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When service-learning comes full circle

Sophomore Samara Perez Labra is working on community development and revitalization initiatives at Habitat for Humanity of Orange County alongside Carolina alumnus Kevin Giff.

Samara Perez Labra and Kevin Giff.
Samara Perez Labra and Kevin Giff. (Submitted photos)

From the moment Kevin Giff stepped on campus as a first-year student in 2013, his involvement with APPLES Service-Learning — a student-led public service program in the Carolina Center for Public Service — defined his Carolina experience.

Participating in APPLES’ Service-Learning Initiative: Launch allowed Giff ’17 to move to campus a few days early and serve the Chapel Hill community through a three-day program with fellow first-year students. From there, he dove headfirst into other APPLES programming, participating in two alternative break service trips and eventually serving as APPLES’ vice president his senior year.

“APPLES really gave me the toolkit for effective community engagement,” Giff said. “The programs are very experience-based and reflection-based, and tying those two together is a great way to develop a lot of important skills that have been very beneficial to me.”

Now, four years after he graduated from Carolina, Giff’s experience with APPLES is coming full circle. The alumnus, who serves as the community development manager for Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, is currently working with and mentoring APPLES intern Samara Perez Labra, a Carolina sophomore majoring in sociology and public policy. Perez Labra has been working closely with Giff on community development and revitalization initiatives in the Fairview community in Hillsborough.

APPLES internships are unique — and intense — experiences that place Carolina students at various nonprofit and governmental agencies in Chapel Hill and beyond. APPLES interns also enroll in a service-learning course that equips them with skills to make the most of their internship experience and reflect on their work.

Having been involved with APPLES as a Carolina student himself, Giff is passing on the skills and lessons he learned through the program to Perez Labra — ensuring that both of their experiences this semester are meaningful and worthwhile.

“It’s been really helpful to have Samara, who’s really eager and intelligent and really passionate about learning and growing the programs that we’re working on,” Giff said. “With my APPLES experience, I think it’s also been helpful for her, just because I’m familiar with the programs that she’s going through and really believe in the model of service-learning.”

It’s also his way of giving back to the APPLES community.

“I’m really fortunate to have Kevin as my supervisor,” Perez Labra said. “He puts a lot of thought into not only the work that he does and how he does it, but also how he approaches my internship experience.”

And just as the experience represents a full-circle moment for Giff, Perez Labra is experiencing one of her own.

Six years ago, Perez Labra’s family participated in Habitat’s homeownership program in Durham County. She worked with her mom to perform the sweat equity hours that the program requires and spoke at various Habitat events about the impact the organization had on her and her family.

As an APPLES Service-Learning intern, she’s combining her interests in public service and her passion for Habitat to further the organization’s mission. Some of her responsibilities include developing a neighborhood newsletter for the Fairview community and revising an onboarding presentation for Habitat homeowners to make it easier to understand.

“When I saw that APPLES had an internship available with Habitat, I knew this was something I wanted to do,” Perez Labra said. “I’ve done the work that a Habitat homeowner has to do to go through the program, I’ve done some advocacy work, and now I want to work behind the scenes and understand what the Habitat staff does to bring communities together and strengthen them.”

As Giff mentors Perez Labra this semester, APPLES’ impact on his personal and professional lives is clearer than ever.

“I’m still learning more and more about what I’ve gained from APPLES,” Giff said. “APPLES instills values of effective community engagement, outreach and reflection, and I was fortunate to gain those experiences as a student.”