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Student, teacher, writer, volunteer - Birch has worn many hats

Melissa Birch is board chair for the Pequot Lakes Public Library and is working to publish her first novel. Theresa Bourke/Echo Journal 1 / 2
Theresa Bourke/Echo Journal Melissa Birch is board chair for the Pequot Lakes Public Library and is working to publish her first novel.2 / 2

Books hold a special place in Melissa Birch's heart.

"I've always been a reader," she said. "Just a voracious reader."

Birch dedicates much of her free time to volunteering at the Pequot Lakes Public Library, where she's chair of the board and sits on the Friends of Pequot Lakes Community Library Committee.

"I do a lot of miscellaneous things," she said, explaining that she writes the library's newsletter, organizes events, is helping put together a new website and fills in at the desk when needed. "It's hard to say 'no' because it's fun," she said.

The library isn't the only place in Birch's life where books play an important role.

"I am revising my first novel," she said. "I have a first draft, which is really exciting."

Writing fiction was something Birch always knew she wanted to do, but the novel she soon hopes to publish wasn't entirely her idea.

"It's one I started with my grandma, actually," she said. "I was working on another book, which I plan to return to once this one's done ... but my grandma wanted me to write a book with her, so I set aside the other one and started working with her. And she passed away long before it was done, but I kept working on it."

The novel - which Birch classifies as realistic fiction - revolves around a grandmother who is raising her granddaughter and contains storylines dealing with various mental health issues.

With a grant just received from the Five Wings Arts Council for a manuscript consultation, Birch plans to have a new set of eyes on her writing this fall and hopes to present her finished product to publishers within the next year.

When she's not immersed in a world of books, Birch volunteers her time to other organizations, such as the Northwoods Unitarian Group, 4-H (which her 13-year-old son is involved in) and the Brainerd Writers Alliance.

"I think it's important to give back to the community if you can," she said of her volunteer initiatives. "If someone's working two jobs and raising children, then no, they don't have time to volunteer. But if I do have time, then it's really nice. And you meet really great people because most of the people who volunteer places are really great."

These volunteer opportunities, however, are not what led Birch to Pequot Lakes. Though she grew up in nearby Walker, her journey back to the lakes area was a long one.

School took Birch to Gustavus College in St. Peter, where she majored in French and took the opportunity to study and live in France for a time. But after getting her degree, she shifted gears and moved to Monterrey, Mexico, to teach fifth grade.

"I heard about a job, and two weeks later I was in my car ... headed across the border," Birch said, noting that she was only 21 years old at the time. "I learned that teaching is much harder than I had ever given my teachers credit for. It was really an eye-opening experience."

Though Birch enjoyed her time in Mexico, Monterrey's poor air quality ultimately drew her back to the United States after a year of teaching.

"I was actually dreaming about clean air because Monterrey is very polluted," she said.

Shifting gears yet again, Birch joined the Minnesota Conservation Corps and went to work at Norris Camp in the Red Lake Management Area for a year, where she met her now-husband of 18 years, Andrew.

"We always joke that we got together because we had no other options because ... there were like seven people living at all in the area," Birch said with a laugh.

After marrying Andrew, Birch moved south and taught environmental and outdoor education at Deep Portage in Hackensack for a year. Conservation and environmental studies kept her focus for the next several years, as she went on to get a master's degree in international relations and environmental policy from Boston University and then a Ph.D. in international relations with a focus on sustainable development from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, just outside of Boston.

Birch chose these fields of study because of how they relate to today's world.

"I think it really encapsulates a lot of the issues we confront as a society and as a world," she said. "How do we make sure that people are able to have jobs, do their work, live a good life over the long term? And that's really one of our central challenges right now."

Between getting her master's and Ph.D., Birch and her husband lived and worked in Portland, Oregon, for a time, where she was a grant writer for a small, nonprofit media organization. She described her time there as almost vacation-like because of the nearby ocean, mountains and wildlife, which fed into her love of plants and geology, and her husband's love of birds.

"There's just so much there that it was incredible," she said.

Andrew's job then took the Birches to Longville in 2009, and finally Pequot Lakes in 2011. He now works for TDS.

Birch, however, decided not to pursue a job in her field of study right away because those she knew in the line of work were putting in 60 hours a week or more.

"It wasn't good for me; it wasn't good for my family. I had a husband and child who never saw me," she said. "So when I finished my dissertation (while living in Longville) ... I picked up my writing projects."

She eventually hopes to return to working in her chosen field of study.

"I'd love to work in things relating to sustainable development, but not 60 hours a week," she said. "But for the moment, I'm writing and writing and writing and writing."

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