Amanda Bishop in Belize
Service-Learning is a required curricular component that began in 2009. It is part of the SCRIPT (Service, Care of Patients, Rationality, Integration, Professionalism, and Transformation) competencies adopted by the College of Human Medicine faculty and requires students to complete 40 hours of a service-learning experience. At the end, students write a reflective essay.
During my undergraduate years at Alma, I was very active with the Alternative Break program, where students spend their Spring Break away from home doing service. Having participated in numerous service trips before, it took very little to convince me that I wanted to spend part of this year’s winter break doing service in another country. I heard about an opportunity to travel to Mexico and Belize for thirteen days with MSU?s International Volunteer Action Corps early in November. The experience sounded like a wonderful opportunity, so I quickly signed up and started preparing for what I knew would be an amazing experience. The trip lived up to and surpassed my expectations by allowing me to provide service and learn about a new culture with a wonderful group of people.
During my undergraduate years at Alma, I was very active with the Alternative Break program, where students spend their Spring Break away from home doing service. Having participated in numerous service trips before, it took very little to convince me that I wanted to spend part of this year’s winter break doing service in another country. I heard about an opportunity to travel to Mexico and Belize for thirteen days with MSU's International Volunteer Action Corps early in November. The experience sounded like a wonderful opportunity, so I quickly signed up and started preparing for what I knew would be an amazing experience. The trip lived up to and surpassed my expectations by allowing me to provide service and learn about a new culture with a wonderful group of people.
To begin, the leaders of the trip described the plans by saying we would be flying into Mexico and driving another eight or so hours to Belize, learning about the Mayan culture, and volunteering in a Children's Home. Additionally, the participants interested in the medical field would have an opportunity to visit one of the hospitals in Belize and learn about their health care system. The itinerary was laid out for us a few weeks in advance, down to the hour. There was no doubt in my mind that our trip was organized. We knew the plans for each day, whether we were visiting a Mayan ruin or working in the Children's Home. About the only thing that was open ended were the details of the home and what we would be doing. Our job was to paint the kids' beds, but other than that, we were told we would have to be flexible.
Before we left, I was very excited about being in Mexico and Belize and had some expectations for the trip. I looked forward to being able to speak the Spanish language in Mexico and I hoped to be able to use it in Belize (even though we were told ahead of time that everyone in Belize speaks English). I was excited to be immersed in the Spanish culture, where people tend to be more laid back, friendlier, and giving than a lot of people in the United States. The thought of working with children was a little intimidating but I was excited to help make a difference in their lives. Due to past traveling service experiences, I was enthusiastic about meeting new people both within my own group and those native to Mexico and Belize. My expectations of the hospital were a little less definitive as I have never been to a hospital outside of the United States. I expected the hospital to be small with a few doctors and slightly unorganized. Needless to say, I was very excited the morning we met in the airport to begin a valuable experience.
The tempo for our trip was set in the airport, when our plan was delayed an hour and a half due to ice. We arrived late in Mexico, but were still able to connect with the people who were going to drive us to Tulum that night. On the way to Tulum, we ended up getting lost. By the time we finally arrived at our hostel, Casa del Sol, they had consolidated our eighteen person reservation and ended up scraping for places for us to sleep. The following day was a little better, as we visited the Mayan Ruins in Tulum. Having never been to the ruins, I was not quite sure what to expect and was amazed by what I saw. The ruins at Tulum are fully excavated, and as you emerge through the entrance to the once-was city, the land opens up and you can see parts of buildings forever. Having read through a packet of information on the Mayan culture prior to viewing the ruins, I could appreciate some of the details of what we were seeing. Unfortunately, we were unable to have a guided tour for these ruins which I feel would have been very helpful and allowed me to understand the different buildings so much more. We would see two more sites while we were in Belize, so we knew we would have access to a tour later on in our stay.
The next day we left Mexico and drove what was supposed to be an eight hour trip in a little less than seven hours. There didn't seem to be any speed limits in Mexico or in Belize, nor any police to enforce them. From what I can remember, the only real law enforcement we saw that day was at the border. We had to actually cross two borders - one leaving Mexico and one to enter Belize. There was a distance between them where there was a casino and some buildings. I had never gone through a customs check on land before either. It was interesting having to unload all of our stuff from the vans, drag it through the customs building, and reload the vans to head out again. We didn't experience any difficulties at any of the checkpoints on the way. A few hours later we arrived at Tropicool, our hotel in San Ignacio, Belize.
After our arrival in San Ignacio, the plans that we had made before arriving in Belize became a little uncertain. Our intention was to arrive in San Ignacio and begin working in the King's Children Home as soon as possible. The home was located about an hours drive away, in Belmopan, Belize. Our first day in Belize, the group leaders and faculty traveled to the children's home while the rest of the group stayed back and sorted donations and prepared a lunch plan for the rest of the week. Upon returning to the hotel, the leaders told us that we would not be able to start working until Sunday January 3rd. In Belize, celebrating the New Year is a bigger deal that Christmas. Nobody works on the holiday. The people at the King's Children Home did not want us
working either, and also felt that the kids should celebrate the holiday without any distractions. This was definitely something we did not account for, although looking back it makes sense that no one works on the holidays. We took advantage of our extra time by visiting the Belize Zoo, and two more Mayan ruins, Cahel Pech, and El Pilar.
On New Year's Eve, even though we were unable to work, we traveled to Belmopan to meet the children of the children's home for a couple of hours. From a distance, the home was a blue building with a fenced in yard, and a playground. We walked in through the gate on a semi-paved sidewalk and into the front doors, where we entered the kitchen area. To the right were a number of picnic tables and to the left, large sinks, stoves, and cabinets. We continued straight through, entering into a very narrow hallway where we had to pass each other walking sideways. This hall led to the bedrooms, which were just large rooms with bunk beds. The kids' rooms were determined by gender and age. All of the boys slept in the same room, while the girls took up a number of the rooms. As we walked in, the younger children were running up to us and reaching their arms up, asking us to hold them. A lot of the kids were sitting in the main room, which was very open, had a perimeter of couches and chairs, and a lone TV on a shelf on the wall.
The home houses children from the ages of newborn to twenty one. Most of the children who are in there have been abused or molested or in some situation that had them removed from their families. Even though they have been removed, they are still allowed (if they want to) to maintain contact with their families by way of phone calls, letters, or visits. Some of the oldest children in there were mothers, with their own children in the home as well. All of the children are in school, though they go to separate schools and sometimes have to travel a long way to get to school. They have such an emphasis on education, that it is one of the greatest expenditures that Leoni (the mother of the home) has every month.
The older kids talked to us about their hopes and dreams. Some are going to school to become pharmacists, others want to get their PhDs. All of them have hopes of being successful and a number of them said that they would like to help people in similar situations as themselves someday. Given that these children have been through more in their lifetime than other people will ever experience, I was amazed at their resiliency and ability to open up and form relationships with our group. We only worked in the home for a few days, but by the end of the week it was very difficult for us to say goodbye.
In addition to getting to know the kids while we were there, our task was to repaint their beds. We started the process by removing their mattresses and carrying them into the kitchen and putting them on one of the picnic tables that they will eat off of. In boys' room, I went to move a piece of plastic that was surrounding one of the mattresses and five cockroaches crawled out. These kids are sleeping on cockroaches, and it didn't really even seem to bother them. After that, we tried to wipe down the beds and walls as much as possible to prevent that from happening anymore. We sanded the wood down, and tried to get rid of as much of the old paint as possible. Another thing that amazed me was the willingness of the kids to help. They wanted nothing more than to be in the rooms with us helping us sand and paint. It got to the point where we had to come up with ways to eliminate the number of people in the rooms because there were too many younger kids running around trying to help! After the sanding, we began to paint. We had brought pink, blue, and green paint We combined some of the pink and blue paint to make a purple color (which became known as lavender because in Belize purple is equivalent to the color of death). There are about 43 or 44kids living in the home right now, and by the end of our time we had painted all of the beds that they wanted painted. There was one room of older girls who wanted their walls painted instead of their beds. We were unable to paint their walls so they just said we could leave their room as it was. Once the paint was on, we were even able to decorate some of their beds with small bottles of acrylic paint that one of our group members had brought down. The kids absolutely loved their beds!
Originally, I was a little nervous when I found out we were working in an orphanage in Belize, but this experience has completely changed my outlook and previous ideas about kids. I met some kids with some pretty rough histories, and was amazed at their character and great loving personalities. During our time we saw young children carrying around even younger ones. They all call themselves brothers and sisters, and love to play. While we did have a lot of fun, there were also moments that were more serious for us. Two of the people in our group are dating, and the kids loved the fact that they were together. However, some of the girls asked Alexa if her boyfriend had ever hit her. She was surprised by their question and responded with an of course not, and asked what they would do if they were hit. Due to the machismo attitude of their culture, they all just said they would probably not really mention it to anyone. She had a long talk with them about respecting their bodies, and how it was not acceptable for any guy to hit them. This was a completely foreign concept to them. Additionally, I was talking with some of the younger boys (ages seven and nine), who were talking about hitting girls because the girls would pick on them. I tried to talk to them about how hitting girls is not OK. On the other hand, one of the older boys was talking about his hopes and dreams of getting his doctorate and playing the guitar - and someone said that he was going to be a heartbreaker. His response was that he would never hurt a woman. While the older kids had these more in depth conversations, the younger kids were more interested in just being held. There are just so many kids there that it almost seemed like they are attention deprived. Don't get me wrong, every kid there is completely loved, but it is impossible to hold them all, all the time. Our group was very effective when it came to holding the kids. They hated when we had to put them down, or would drag us with them in some other direction as soon as their feet hit the floor.
Apart from working at the children's home, five of us were able to visit the hospital in Belmopan on one of our days there.
While observing, one thing I did notice about the staff was that everyone has a great camaraderie and love for what they do. They enjoy helping each other and helping their patients. Their love for patients is demonstrated in the fact that at every public hospital, everyone is seen. Health care is free unless the patient needs to see a specialist or have a surgery.
Given everything we were able to see and the service we were able to do, our group of volunteers left Belize with a sense of pride, hope, and motivation to continue helping others.
My experiences in Belize were definitely interesting, from learning about their rich cultural history, becoming more aware of certain social issues that lead children to be sent to a Children's Home, and spending time in the hospital and seeing their system of health care. I worked with kids for one of the first times in my life and fell in love with each and every one of them, knowing that I have the capability of making their lives better (and hope to do so one day). The days that I spent in Belize not only helped the children of the King's Children Home, but helped make me a more aware individual of a need greater than my own. The children were an inspiration, and reminded me of the importance of serving others and my contribution to the world.
Action Corps Belize Service-
Photo by Glen Sterner.