A Service-Oriented Week in Belize

NPCA embarked on a new adventure this October. In collaboration with the Osher Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI) at Arizona State University (ASU), and Discover Corps, a RPCV-founded service travel company, a group of 25 ASU Alumni embarked on a one week, service-oriented trip to Belize. The program, dubbed OLLI Corps, joined together travelers with the community of San Igancio in Belize to volunteer their time towards a number of community development initiatives, and to learn about the unique way in which Peace Corps Volunteers engage with their communities.

Working alongside Discover Corps’ local guide, OLLI Corps members had the opportunity to volunteer in a local elementary school for three days, building relationships with teachers and students, helping teach lessons in arts, mathematics, and English. While English is the official language of Belize, students in San Ignacio (located on the Guatemalan border) speak English, Spanish, Kriol, and Maya languages, which school staff transition between fluidly during instruction. 

OLLI Corps members met a Peace Corps Response Volunteer currently serving in Belize and talked with Peace Corps Belize and Guatemala staff about the impact of Peace Corps in Belize and Guatemala. They also learned about ecological and social service initiatives that are being led in Belize. They visited a local farm and heard from farmers about their efforts to create sustainable farming practices. In addition, they visited the Cornerstone Foundation, which provides social services to the people in and around San Ignacio. These activities included youth services, women's services, and health services, working to increase the impact the foundation can have through clinic outreach days within the community.   

In between service experiences, OLLI Corps members visited a Maya archeological site, learned to cook a Belizean meal, tasted the Maya drinking cacao, and had a Kriol and Garifuna cultural dance lesson! At the end of the trip, members expressed the mixed emotions that all Peace Corps Volunteers face: Did I make a difference? What more can I do? How can I do it? There were also moments of gratitude, combined with great connections. 

OLLI Corps member, Claire McWilliams, wrote an essay about her experience, titled "A Day at School in Belize," which is shared below. 

Moms or dads walk the little ones to school hand-in-hand as the night skies of rain clear away to blue. Their uniform shirts are sunshine yellow, pants and skirts brown, their backpacks hang large. Looking chipper, looking cheerful, they descend upon their community school past signs to remember to ‘protect the earth before it’s too late’ and that ‘a person is a person no matter how small’.

Curious eyes observe the strangers arriving at the school. Some friendly ‘good mornings’, with others stealing glances of these different-looking outsiders.

“What will they be like?”

Everyone is asking the same question.

Mr. V--a teacher who looks twelve, who is eighteen, tells the children he is 23. He has 30 students of varying backgrounds and abilities in a colorful, open-air classroom to wrangle, to continually manage, to teach. He has limited access to supplies but makes use of every last thing, his classroom hacks are all over. The collective background noise echoes. He moves about the room with grace and authority. Mutual hand signals cue teacher and students. He has earned their respect.

Teacher asks us—the visitors—to introduce ourselves. We say our names and something we love, and a room full of 7-8 year-olds eagerly raise their hands in agreement—Pizza, yes! Chocolate—yes! Reading—yes! Pizza got the biggest cheers. When they are asked to introduce themselves, they are mostly shy and sweet and others eager to share what they love, too. Everybody loves pizza. Happy birthday is sung to teacher, student, and visitor—all three with birthdays on this very day. We learn that there are many verses in the Belizean version and that each person must tell them how many years they have so that that number of claps can be given. 

The visitors sit with small groups. Each novel aspect of the other is observed. The questions begin. Where are you from? What do you like? Do you know what a mermaid is? Brothers and sisters? Do you like MindCraft? Do you like Halloween, too?

Teacher asks them to get out the beans they were to bring to class. They glue them on a worksheet of the rosary in groups of ten. They enjoy the tendrils and balls of glue in their fingers and throw a black bean or two into the air. They label the rosary parts. Some are careful. Some are messy. They drift from Spanish to English.

Lessons begin. We read a story with puppets and identify the verbs. We practice integers and swoop swoop swoop to the next digits. They are smart and eager and capable and want more. After finishing the lesson activities, we improvise. We tell progressive stories and drum roll on the table when a verb is heard. We play hangman and they have me guess, ‘MISS CLAIRE LIKES PINEAPPLES.’ Like is the verb, they say.

They ask, will you please stay after lunch? I tell them I will be there tomorrow and the next day in the mornings. Xavier touches my shoulder and says, 'Thank you.' After they head to lunch, I leave a note to say, ‘See you tomorrow! (see is the verb).'

Should volunteers be in schools when traveling to different countries? Mr. V says that volunteers are a key part of providing personalized attention to students. It gives them a chance to have conversations with native English speakers and gain exposure to cultures different from their own.

I look around me and see other members engaging their small groups in enraptured conversations and activities. Their roles as teachers, administrators, researchers, business owners, volunteers, parents, grandparents have made them ready for a day like today. We are adding pages to the kids’ mental file folders about who Americans are and what we are like. They are adding pages to our file folders too—some obvious pages and others more mystical about the crispness of youth, the mysteries of time and life, about our own abilities to stretch, and to find something in ourselves we didn't know was there or may have forgotten.

I think about this. Think is the verb.

 

Are you a part of an OLLI program at your local university or want to learn more about this program? Contact us.

 

Bethany Leech is NPCA's International Programs Coordinator. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eswatini from 2011 to 2013.