Report on SCOM Grant for Belize Trip

July 17, 2011
Christine Hertlein

Holy Cross Anglican Primary School was founded in 2006 by Frances and Vernon Wilson as a confrontation with poverty and is intended to serve the “poorest of the poor”. After vacationing on Ambergris Caye and seeing many children on the streets rather than in schools, it was determined that a school was needed to provide education for those who could not otherwise afford it in a very depressed area of the island (San Mateo). In Belize there are no public schools. The government and churches work together to provide an education at a cost to the students. The government finances teachers’ salaries and, in some cases, land for the schools. Churches then provide funding for the building, other operational expenses, and administration. In most cases the churches are already in existence when the school is built. Holy Cross is an exception. There is no Anglican Church on the island; the school was built without a church to provide administration. The bishop of Belize is hoping that a church plant will come out of the school but that remains to be seen. The school is supported by donations from and work completed by small teams traveling from the United States and Canada. Holy Cross has grown from one building with fifty students to eight buildings which have served over 500 children. Because the government has limited class sizes to twenty five students, only four hundred children are able to attend now and the school has to turn down applications. Those children are probably unable to afford the tuition at the other primary school on the island and will remain uneducated.
The first three days of the trip were spent in Belize City. We stayed at the diocesan guest house and attended church on Sunday at the Cathedral Church of St. John. On Monday we met with the Right Reverend Philip Wright, Bishop of the Diocese of Belize and Miss Leslie who is director of education for the diocese. The bishop has concerns about Holy Cross Anglican School. Frances and Vernon Wilson left Holy Cross four months ago and the sustainability of the school is the number one concern. Will the Wilson’s ideas and dedication be replaced or will the school slowly decline? A dramatic change was seen in the children attending Holy Cross. They seemed more “alive and happy”, but the bishop is wondering how long the people will think things are free and what about when these children go out into the “real world”. Is a new generation of dependence being created? His dream is to create an environment which creates equality among people, not dependence. He has seen a shift from the partners of Holy Cross. They are working more collaboratively with the school and Holy Cross is defining their needs rather than being given things other people think they need. Another concern for the bishop is the fact that the local people are seeing “salvation” or hope coming from only white faces. In the three weeks I was on the island, I witnessed the presence of six mission trips to the school and there were only two people of color among them.
Miss Leslie showed us what they are doing to try and meet the Millennium Development Goals. The only goal lacking at this time is in regards to gender equality. This is not so much of a problem in the schools, but it is still a big problem in the homes. Every school, including primary schools, has HIV aids education and a corner for health education in general. School teachers are not required to have more than a high school education, but Miss Leslie is trying to hire teachers with at least two years of higher education.
The following day we observed a soup kitchen sponsored by women of the cathedral. Most are retired women who had lived, worked and raised their families in the United States and have returned to their native Belize to live out the rest of their years. They feed as many people as they can (usually about 150 or more) until the food runs out. Food is also delivered to shut in parishioners. Their concern is who will take over this ministry when they are no longer able to do it.
We then boarded a water taxi for our trip to Ambergris Caye (a ninety minute ride) where we spent the remainder of our three weeks talking with people who work at Holy Cross, business owners, street vendors and residents.
Lydia Brown is now the volunteer coordinator at Holy Cross. Born and raised in New Zealand, she and her husband who has an interest in renewable energy in developing countries came to Belize in March of this year. She receives no salary at this time and both she and her husband are unable to work for pay until they receive their permanent residency which takes a year to complete. Lydia has struggled with the idea of short term mission trips coming to Holy Cross. Her first reaction was “Why pay $2000 to come here and do $100 worth of work?” She also felt those on these mission trips took away work from the islanders. Since she has been there however, she has seen that some of the mission trips provide a change of heart for missioners and may change lives. There are construction teams which come throughout the year and Vacation Bible School groups which come during spring and summer breaks. The VBS groups are required to provide snacks for the children. Each team which comes pays a project fee to the school of $3000. This dollar amount, in some cases, can be negotiable and the money is used to cover the costs of the projects which the team will be doing. She would rather have the parents of the children and the community involved with these projects, but they feel there is no need to be involved while others are doing the projects for them.
The school has a feeding program which up until this time provided breakfast, lunch and snacks for the children, but because of the cost involved, according to Lydia, they have had to cancel the breakfast meal. This is unfortunate because for many children these are the only meals they eat during the day. A tuition of $50 per year is being initiated this year to help defray costs (it costs $500 per year to educate one student) and it is hoped that the parents will take some ownership of the school. Ten dollars is required at registration and the balance can be paid in installments throughout the year.
Alfredo (“Freddy”), one of two maintenance men at the school, came to the island six years ago. Born and raised in northern Belize near the Mexican border he dropped out of school at age eleven to help with the family. His father was a drug dealer who had been caught and sent to jail. According to Freddy, he has “never seen a school which has grown so fast”. He is happy for the children who are being educated and is happy to know there are people who care about the children’s well-being. He is also impressed that the school is for all children, not just Belizeans (there is a large population of undocumented people from Central America on the island). He would like to see the community support the school, by painting classrooms and helping with repairs needed but they won’t help because there is no pay. Some question the need to help as they believe the school gets everything for free. Freddy believes the school instills moral values in the children, but because many of the parents are working and not at home, the children see things done badly. He believes that for some, the school is like a babysitting service and some parents don’t even look at their child’s report card.
Kristin, a chaplain for a girls’ school in Baltimore has been bringing mission groups to the school for the past three years. The school likes to have their students involved in community service locally, nationally and globally. This group spends forty hours a week at the school. Kristin believes that her students get the most out of the trip by working with the children and not in construction. They learn more about social justice issues and what life is like for the children of the island. She realizes that one week a year is not going to effect a change on the locals of the island, but her students’ lives are transformed. She hopes this is a seed that is planted to encourage service work in the future.
Sarah and Andrew, students on Kristin’s team both agreed that not only did the trip give them a chance to bond with others of their team, but they really understood the dark future of the children of the island. It was hard for them to hear what life was like for the children. They both stated that this trip “has changed how I think about people here”.
Dorita, from the mainland of Belize, has been on the island for thirteen years. She works in her brother’s grocery store. Her education is the equivalent of our sixth grade. She noted that since Holy Cross was built there are fewer children on the streets, but she doesn’t understand why now the children are being charged minimal tuition when “they (the school) get so much help for free”. When asked about the mission trips which come to help, she replied, “They bring business to us”.
Padre Arturo, a missionary of the Roman Catholic Church came from the Philippines. He has been on the island for one year and will be rotated out after serving four years at St. Peter’s Catholic Church. He feels Holy Cross is doing good work and it is his plan to initiate a feeding program modeled on the Holy Cross program in the Roman Catholic schools.
Marta, a street vendor selling produce has two children she tried to enroll in Holy Cross last year, but they were turned away. She applied too late and the school was full. The school is located closer to her home and “it’s free”.
Barnaby, a jeweler, was involved in the building of Holy Cross. It is his dream to start a vocational training program for the uneducated to learn a trade. He is willing to teach jewelry making. He noted that, “children are the future and need to learn moral values”. “Holy Cross does this for our children”.
Patojos, a native islander and dive shop owner feels that, Holy Cross is a draw for more poor people to come to the island for “free education”. His wife home schools their five children. She was educated in the United States.
Claudia, another street vendor who makes and sells jewelry, came to the island from Guatemala on vacation with a friend twenty two years ago, liked it, and decided to stay. She has one son who was graduated from Holy Cross this year and another younger son who is still attending Holy Cross. Her oldest son begins high school this fall on a scholarship. She stated, “If it weren’t for Holy Cross, my children wouldn’t be able to go to school”.
Carter, from Virginia, and on his fourth mission trip here bringing high school kids, said that the kids he brings can understand just how lucky they are. They begin to realize that the world is not just about them and hopefully the trip will inspire service work in the future. He feels that the only thing missing at Holy Cross is theology; there is no Anglican presence (church) on the island. He would like to see a rectory built and staffed by priests who are vacationing or on sabbatical.
I was most impressed by a Canadian group which came to the school. Darcy, the rector of a parish near Toronto, related that his parish wanted to get involved in mission outside of the country four years ago. St. Simon’s made a ten year commitment at that time to partner with Holy Cross. He brings a group to Holy Cross every other year and during the off years they send money for projects. They are looking at sending money for solar panels next year. They will re-assess their commitment after eight years to see if they want to continue at Holy Cross, go somewhere else, or discontinue the project altogether after their ten years are completed. He hopes that the mission trips will “enlarge the kids’ worlds”. He encourages the young people to look for commonalities between them and the children on the island, rather than differences.
I found in talking with the people of the island, most people were aware of Holy Cross and agreed the work done there is good. Only one person I spoke with, a Lebanese, did not know about Holy Cross. The misconception seems to be that most people also think that because so many mission trips come to help the school, that everything should be free for the students. They don’t realize the school has expenses to meet such as paying salaries for their office manager, maintenance men, and kitchen staff, not to mention utility bills. A taxi driver who drove us to the airport asked when we would be coming back. We responded we had to raise more money in order to come. He was under the impression that we were paid to make the trip (by whom I don’t know)!
There is a group of mothers who have banded together to help out the school. The school was gifted with several sewing machines and these mothers decided to learn to sew in order to make uniforms for the children. Only one or two of these women knew how to sew, so they began classes. Teaching the classes were volunteers with mission trips who were seamstresses. It was decided to begin with sewing jumpers for the girls this year because they were relatively simple to make. The proceeds from sales are to be turned over to the school. In the future they plan on learning to make pants for the boys and shirts and blouses as well. When asked how much the women money wanted to make for their time and efforts the response was “none”. “Why should we earn money for this when people taught us a skill for free?” They are also learning how to sew tote bags to sell to tourists. These women realize the value of education and are willing participants in raising money to see that their children are educated.
The impact of Holy Cross on the community is obvious. Children whose parents are unable to afford tuition in the other school on the island are now able to go to school. With the support of the sewing project, the women are participating in fundraising. By setting this example, perhaps others in the community will come forward and help as well and Holy Cross will not have to depend exclusively on donations. While short term mission trips fill a need for maintenance and construction, more long term partnerships are desired so the school does not have to exist wondering from day to day where money will come from.
It is my hope that the students in my seminary will, as future priests, carefully consider mission trips for their parishes in the years to come. The goal of these trips should be to help people become self-sustainable, not to do everything for them. For example, the people who help with construction projects should be teaching people of the community how to build as the seamstresses taught women to sew. Also I would hope that short term mission trips are combined with long term commitments. I would encourage those people leading a mission trip to contact the diocese prior to going to learn what is most needed and where. It is always well to remember that mission trips should be taken to teach people skills needed to improve their lives not to give them what we think they need.

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