After Belize Trip, a ‘Changed Heart and Mind’

By Jen Cooper

As I write this, I returned just one month ago from my service project in Belize. Our team of 12 women had about only two things in common: we were from Rush University in Chicago and had no experience in building a house! We boarded a plane for a country where we only had a basic knowledge of the culture, many expectations and a willingness to take a leap of faith. So as I sift through thousands of photos that tell a story, here are a few of the highlights from my experience in Belize.

Our first few days were spent at various service organizations in Belize City, where we were matched based on our individual interests. Most of our team went to a school and of course, I was the only one who chose to work with older adults. I spent two days at the Mercy Clinic, which is a “one-stop shop” for older adults living in the community. The Mercy Clinic includes a medical clinic with a nurse and physician, shower facilities, activities, two meals a day and a “meals on wheels” program that delivers approximately 25 hot meals per day to poor elderly in the community.

They used to offer education programs and palliative care and even have a building for these programs, however, they don’t have the staffing. Both days I was there the physician did not show up, despite a waiting room full of people who traveled a distance to get there.

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‘Unacceptable’ poverty

Since there was not much going on in the clinic, I decided to join the meal run and get a personal tour of life in Belize City. What I saw was poverty; elderly who were in living conditions that we would consider unacceptable; no electricity or running water and in desperate need of repair. Most of these older adults have several children living right in Belize City who they never see. It was raining during our visits, and I noted how poverty looks and feels worse in the rain. Why is that? I found some elders up to their ankles in water because of flooding, some unable to get out of their home (I couldn’t help but think, what if there was a fire?) and for many, this was the only food they receive all day.

I vowed I would not do the visits on my second day because it was too difficult to see, but I guess sleeping on it helped me get over myself, and I decided to return for day two. Even after one visit, many of the older adults greeted me like they were looking forward to my visit. It made me want to go back again. I still see those faces — smiles of joy despite the challenge of not even having what we view as the very basics of living. I went into my first weekend wondering how I could possibly help the cause and make a difference for even one of these older adults.

Nutrition advice

On the weekend, Hand in Hand Ministries (our trip hosts and coordinators) asked me to do an educational session on nutrition for those who live in one of the homes they have built. In my mind I decided it would be a small group, but arrived to find a room of 40+ who seemed anxious to hear what the American nurse had to say. Teaching there was a challenge to my perfectionist tendencies — everyone talked at once, kids were outside screaming and the room echoed all of this chaos. I quickly learned how to project and try to hold attention for at least 30 minutes. It was interesting teaching people how to eat right when so many can’t afford anything and sometimes only eat one solid meal a day.

On Sunday evening, I enjoyed an inspirational mass at St. Martens Church. I felt very welcomed and encouraged by being there. A young boy came in prior to the service to ask if he could play his drum for worship. In true Belizian fashion, they let him join right in and it was a perfect fit! Being at St. Martens was a great soullifter in preparation for the week ahead.

Four days of hammering

Bright and early Monday our team joined Hand in Hand Ministries to build the 147th house for a poor Belizian family. When I arrived at the building site, I was thrilled to see that the couple we were building for was one of the places I’d delivered meals to. Guess I found a way I could make a difference! When the family heard they were selected to have a house built, they immediately tore down their rundown home, not knowing there would be a month’s wait until our team arrived. So, the family lived in three little sheds, one as bathroom, one for the wife, and one for the husband suffering from advanced prostate cancer. Under the direction of two foremen, our team spent four full days hammering (I am not kidding) and assembling a 16-by-16-foot wood home for the Taibo couple.

Barely before sunset on day four, the house was completed and the house blessing was scheduled for Saturday, December 11. Father Brian from St. Martens joined our team and Mrs. Taibo in the new home to share scriptures, prayers, reflections and songs. I was able to resist tears until we sang “Lean on Me” — one of my favorite songs of all times!

Following the blessing, a young woman stopped me on the street to tell me she was eating healthier this week — after a few minutes, I realized she was at the session I did on nutrition — and made me think that you never know what kind of impact you can have in the lives of others!

The day before we left, we spent the morning with Abel, the director of Hand in Hand Ministries in Belize. I can honestly say I’ve never heard such gratitude and encouraging words as I heard that day. What we felt to be a kind gesture and “time out” of life as we know it they found to be a heroic gift of faith in action. As a team, we looked at one another in disbelief thinking “did we really do that?”

After a full day of flights from sunny, hot Belize to subzero wind chills of Chicago, I said goodbye to my teammates and headed east to Philadelphia. We received word from Belize just one week after our return that Mr. Taibo passed away. Seems he waited to see the house was ready for his wife so he could go in peace.

This experience truly enhanced my community health perspective. It was interesting to see how basic needs such as food, water and shelter along with social issues such as stigma, promiscuity, theft and poverty impact health and access to health care. The needs are great and there is much work to be done!

I am eternally grateful to Rush and our faculty advisors for choosing me to go on this trip and preparing me well for the unexpected, Hand in Hand for guiding me through my experiences in Belize, and all of you right here at home who offered encouragement and advice, donated supplies and provided financial support. Without each of these resources in place we could not have accomplished what we did. I truly have gained experience and memories that will never be lost, and a changed heart and mind about global health needs.

Jennifer Cooper is a MSN student in the Advanced Public Health Nursing (APHN) Program in the Rush University College of Nursing.

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