October 2, 2014

Volunteer Vacation in Belize

A struggling community makes a lasting impression
on a North Carolina college student

By Melissa Hite

Vacations Magazine: Volunteer Vacation in Belize
Photo by Melissa Hite

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

I've participated in several volunteer vacations, and each trip has been exceptional. I have gained priceless knowledge and lifelong friendships, as well as a greater understanding of my tiny role in this terrifyingly big world.

During my first semester as a senior at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, I was presented with the opportunity to travel to Belize City for a two-week service trip during the winter break. I had visited Belize on my high school senior cruise. I remembered walking down just one strip of Belize City, then deciding to go snorkeling instead, for I felt the city had nothing to offer. Now, I could offer to help that same city.

Our group of Wake Forest students landed at the small, quaint Belizean airport and rode a school bus through the city, where dirt roads are occasionally interrupted by paved streets, and where one minute you are in a jungle and the next in an industrial district. I could not peel my eyes from the scene outside my window. The land was stark, and trash was everywhere -- yet palm trees still grew, and it was easy to imagine the beauty that once existed.

Upon arrival at our hotel, we settled in and met the staff; it was here that I first saw how open and compassionate the Belizeans are. We spent that afternoon getting to know each other, as well as Drew Cogbill, our Peacework leader. Peacework is the nongovernmental organization that helped coordinate our trip. Its goal is to alleviate poverty in Third World nations through economic development partnerships. Peacework sends volunteers to different countries to establish alliances and launch effective and sustainable projects, primarily working with college students and corporate groups that want to spend time volunteering abroad. The organization has seen much success in its efforts.

With the help of high-ranking government officials in Belize -- such as Patrick Faber, the minister of education, and Carol Babb, deputy chief of education -- Peacework has been able to implement several programs within the school systems. Cogbill became involved with Peacework's efforts in Belize a few years ago. Now, as an employee of the organization, he travels to the country as often as his schedule allows.

I soon learned in talking to Cogbill that he had discovered the true Belize, the dichotomy of luxury and poverty, of tourist resorts and decaying villages. That first night, I realized that not only could our group make a difference in Belize, but also that Belize could make a difference in us. Anticipation and excitement for our projects grew.

Our time in the city was spent on two tasks. The first week, we renovated a basketball court in one of the poorest neighborhoods, Collet. During the second week, we hosted an after-school literacy camp for young children. Each day began with a home-cooked Belizean breakfast of fry jacks (a type of fried dough), beans and freshly squeezed juice. We then rode the bus or made the 20-minute walk to Collet.

Our first morning, we arrived to find a completely dilapidated basketball court. Trash had been thrown everywhere, the benches were sagging and the fence was falling. We dove in by picking up the litter first. Soon, kids from the neighborhood flooded the court and looked at us with curiosity on their faces: Who are these strangers cleaning our basketball court?

Before long, they jumped right in to help, collecting debris and carrying the filled bags off the court. This desire to pitch in soon spread from the kids to the adults in the neighborhood, who contributed hard physical labor and also shared the tools that we lacked.

Soon, the old fence and backboards came down, and a new fence and freshly painted backboards were installed. Volunteers and locals bonded while shoveling dirt and mixing concrete. We learned that oil paint is great for painting clean-edged lines, but that pouring turpentine all over yourself to remove paint is quite messy.

We were touched by the locals' participation in the project. They had accepted us as outsiders who were simply there to help them improve their community. One Belizean, Glenbret Reneeu, a hired construction worker, made a particularly strong impact upon our group of volunteers. He was patient and kind, teaching us the ropes of construction while always encouraging us. At the end of the week, Reneeu confessed his worries for the future of Belize. With growing violence in the city, he wondered if his 4-year-old son would live to see 20.

Another Belizean who grew to be a dear friend was Kenton Lino, a college student who became involved in the project through his mother, a teacher in the community. Without fail, Lino showed up on time each day, always smiling and always ready to work. His calm temper and strong character helped unite the group.

As we worked, I became anxious about the sustainability of the project. I didn't want to rebuild the basketball court only to come back in a year and find it in disrepair. But my fears were eased by people like Reneeu, who assured me that efforts by groups like ours are truly appreciated by the people of Belize, and that the community would take care of the court and children would have a safe place to play. At a dedication ceremony, we celebrated our hard work and unveiled the new court, with hopes that it would make a positive impact on this struggling neighborhood.

With the help of Peacework directors, we planned a literacy camp for the second week. Children of all ages showed up, excited and eager to learn. Their parents did not force them to attend; they came because they wanted to -- to read, interact with other children and learn about us.

We knew we couldn't teach a child to read in a week's time, but we hoped to show them that the world of books can be fun. We encouraged the kids to read by themselves or out loud to each other. We wanted to demonstrate the opportunities that could come from reading, and help them see how it could further their education.

When we weren't working on our projects, we had time to explore Belize's tourist attractions. We took a boat down the New River to the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, and we rode a water taxi to Caye Caulker for snorkeling and swimming with stingrays. These activities are very appealing to visitors, and it's easy to get caught up in the adventure and allure of a destination like Belize, but why not stay a little longer and get to know the people on a different level? I have no doubt that there are other countries like Belize all over the world -- beautiful places with so much to offer, yet so much to gain -- countries with remarkable people who embrace help with open arms and kind hearts.

At the end of my two weeks, I thought about my experience in Belize. It gave me insight into the issues that are taking place in this small country of just 300,000 people that lies a short flight over the Gulf of Mexico. Up until 1981, it was a territory of the United Kingdom, and it still has much potential. As our bus driver, Sonny, said, "Belize isn't a poor country, it's just underdeveloped."

I don't think that one group of students can travel abroad for two weeks and change the world. But I do believe that one small project like ours has the ability to affect a great many people. As deputy chief of education Carol Babb reminded me, by volunteering abroad you get the best of both worlds: seeing new things while forming intimate relationships and leaving a legacy.

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Choosing the Right Trip

There are opportunities to volunteer all over the world. Before diving into a project, it's important to sit down and think carefully about where you'd like to go, what you'd like to offer, and what you hope to gain.

"The best service trip participants are the ones that truly immerse themselves in the experience," says Brighid Jensen, assistant director of student development and volunteer services at Wake Forest University. "They truly care about the people they are working with and make a valiant effort to build sincere relationships and perform sustainable service."

Here are some more points to consider when choosing a volunteer vacation.

* When selecting a program, look for one that is in place and ongoing and prepared to use volunteers.
* Evaluate your strengths and goals, then match them with the activities you'll be required to do. Hard labor is good, but are you good at hard labor? What will be useful to those you want to help, and meaningful to you?
* Educate yourself prior to the trip. Understand the politics, culture and religion. This will enrich your experience and show the people that you respect their country.
* Be sensitive to the needs of the community and volunteer agency. Don't simply do something without understanding the circumstances of the community.

The Vacations To Go Grant

National travel discounter Vacations To Go established the Vacations To Go Grant in 2008 as a scholarship for Wake Forest students participating in international service trips. Alan Fox, chairman and CEO of Vacations To Go, is a '79 and '81 graduate of the university, located in Winston-Salem, NC.

There are two portions to the grant: a need-based scholarship and a photojournalism assignment that pays a stipend. The VTG Grant gives a set amount of scholarship money to each international service trip. Students who are awarded the photojournalism assignment will write an article about their experiences. Look for their stories in future issues of Vacations.




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