A veteran of several volunteer vacations, North Carolina college student, Melissa Hite, recounted her experience traveling to Belize. She first visited Belize back as a high school senior on a cruise and remembered walking down one strip of Belize City and concluded that the city had nothing to offer and went snorkeling. Then as a college senior, she was given the opportunity to go down to Belize on a two-week service trip and discovered a side of Belize that endeared her to the country. Melissa shared her renewed perspective on Belize gained from her volunteer vacation:
Our group of 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.
Arriving 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.
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. 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.
Volunteers and locals bonded while shoveling dirt and mixing concrete. 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.
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.
For the second week, we planned a literacy camp. Children of all ages showed up, excited and eager to learn. 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.
Having been on several volunteer vacations, Melissa considered each trip exceptional — gaining priceless knowledge, lifelong friendships, and a greater understanding of her small role in this big world!
[via Vacations Magazine ]
Photo by Melissa Hite
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