Belize in J-Term 2014


Travelling to Belize this J-Term was one the most rewarding experiences of my life. I learned so much not only about myself, but also about service-learning. Below is one of my daily reflections from the trip, and deserves a little precursor. The island of San Pedro (where we stayed for 10 days) is relatively small so our presence was known and allowed us to form close relationships with locals. We had been told about “The Legend”, Ms. Linda Carter. To meet her was something I’ll never forget, so I’ll let my reflection tell the rest of the story…

 Tonight we ran into the Linda Carter…she is a hoot and tells it like it is! We learned a little bit about her life: she was a navy child, an ex-army wife, had her son taken from her, became the first woman scuba diver in Belize, has bar tended at nearly every place in San Pedro, and has lived here for 28 years. She is so charismatic and loves to have a good time with anyone who will talk to her. I think she has so many amazing stories to share and I wish that we had a little more time on the island so that I could get to know her. She told us that she has had 37 different vocations, then went around our table and asked each of us what our dream job was. Her main piece of advice is to never let anyone get you down because you need to do you and follow your dream. Her dream was to become an astronaut, but said that when NASA asked her to train astronauts how to scuba dive, she called that close enough.

So how does this relate to learning about myself on the trip and leading to my transformation?  The rationale is simple. From our 20 minute conversation with Linda tonight, I realized that in any part of life, in any community, or in any single person, as long as a dream is being sought after, that is the end goal. The people of San Mateo had a dream of wanting their children to receive an education, so volunteers came together to make that happen. One of the students in my class has a dream of becoming a teacher and she is currently the brightest student in our class; the odds are good that she will have that opportunity. I think it is so important to remember that no matter what the circumstance is, everyone can have a dream even if it seems nearly impossible to accomplish. Linda never thought she would be able to become an astronaut, yet NASA reached out to her.

Speaking with her really hit that point home with me and made me think so much more about what I have been experiencing at Holy Cross and through the local community. It makes me wonder what the dreams are of the local street vendors. Are they selling their delicious tacos in hopes of making enough money to travel or pay for their child to go to school? Everyone has a story and a dream, even if it so small or insignificant, a dream is still a dream.

From working at Holy Cross, I realized that I saw a lot of things that I did not agree with and they did not settle well with me yesterday. It was a hard day to process things and I had to talk with several different people to get everything off my chest. My goal for today was to go in with an open mind and a welcoming heart and embrace whatever happened. It worked, because today was a lot better, but the thing that still irks me is that these children only know what is out there to do and to become based on their own family’s lifestyle. Because so many of them live in poverty in San Mateo, their parents sell things on the beach. When I talked with a few of them, they had no idea what they wanted to be, but one little girl said she wanted to be a teacher. That resonated with me, not only because that is what I am wanting and studying to be as well, but because here is a girl who has every odd stacked against her, yet she wants to become a teacher and continue her education. I have realized that discovering something like that is such a rare find in Belize because so many children are accustomed to either having things handed to them or having to beg for things. It made me realize that while going to the school and helping out the teachers is great, what if the more important thing is connecting with a student that gives him/her hope and encouragement for accomplishing his/her dream? To me, that seems priceless and while it may be more of an unspoken or unrecognized service than physically building something or teaching a lesson, it has changed a child’s life that may not have had that hope or encouragement before.

Experiencing that has truly changed my life. I have seen the extreme poverty in San Mateo, yet have realized that the children do not view themselves as poor. They all should and some do have dreams, it is our jobs as educators to help encourage them to make those dreams a reality. I think that by supporting and encouraging those dreams, that is being an active steward for the common good. These students, while they may need supplies at school or money for food, need to know that someone is their cheerleader. Nothing is better than knowing that someone is rooting for you to succeed. I believe that so much can stem from that and that may be what the children need the most. From what I have witnessed, the teachers are not forming those relationships to be a motivator for students to follow their dreams. Some do not have a parent as a role model or financier to help fuel a dream. However, if the youth of Belize start to believe in themselves and work towards their dream, I believe that good things will come for this country and for San Pedro. Dreams start small and only take a little bit of encouragement to get started, so why not start now? Get to know someone new tomorrow. Find out their story. Encourage them to follow their dream, and good things will happen.

In close, this experience at Holy Cross has truly transformed my life. I have not only become more critical of teaching practices and classroom environment, but also how I view service. I used to have the mentality that I did service to help people and I normally did it because I was required to. I never built a relationship and had the mentality of “get-in-get-out”. I knew that this trip was going to be different, and I can say with confidence that volunteering at Holy Cross has transformed me in so many ways. I no longer view service as a “duty” or “chore”, instead it is a privilege and needs to be treated as such. When volunteering, we are representing everything that we are associated with in our lives. Someone somewhere will be forming an opinion about us and what we do. It is important to recognize that this service is not simply about us, it is a relationship between us and the people or community we are helping. Realizing this yesterday in the school, helped me to change my focus on my volunteering. I went in thinking that I would model how to incorporate different types of teaching or activities to increase student engagement. However, I have now realized that it is not my place, nor my responsibility to do so because that is not what Holy Cross truly needs. It needs people to love and encourage the children. At the end of the day, is my one activity with student collaboration truly going to make the teacher change the way she does her instruction? There’s a small chance, but most likely no. Something that will make a bigger difference is forming a close relationship with a student, finding out what makes him/her tick, and being his/her supporter.

by Hanna Geiger