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The Office of Social Justice Service-immersion Experience
After departing the hospitable arms of the Pallotine Sisters at the Nazareth Retreat Center in Punta Gorda we found ourselves well into the remaining days of our experience in Belize…but we didn’t fret because just around the corner, another eye-opening adventure awaited us.
Belize - holding hands with a nun.
We traveled to the village of Hopkins, along the southern coast of Belize - on the Caribbean Sea. This village only had two roads in and out and virtually one main street. Here we were first exposed to an area where the division of wealth and extreme economics in Belize was self-evident. Hopkins, a beach town is divided into North and South Hopkins. North Hopkins is where the original village was established and the main living area for the locals and a fair amount of visitors. Though the nature is lush and the people are vibrant, North Hopkins faces challenges most villages in developing countries experience. As we traveled through and made our way into South Hopkins, we saw the strong emergence of visual wealth – large houses, beach-front resorts, mainstream restaurants, real estate offices and well-fed pets. This area is a target for tourists with a strong interest in vacation destination homes to buy or rent. The contrast between the two areas of the village was vast. This difference supported the opinion Leonard Lewis, a Belizean we were fortunate to have met, when he said the middle class of Belize is disappearing and ‘Belize is growing into a country with only very poor and the very rich’.
Lebeha Drum Center in Belize
After a hearty lunch we headed to the Lebeha Drumming Center for lessons by owner and Hopkins native, Jabar. Here we learned the basics about drumming and Garifuna rhythms. We were invited to return in the evening for dance lessons and the chance to show off our talents (or lack of = ME) in drumming. Jabar and his team were patient and shared their culture and talents with an open heart.
We also had dinner at “Love on the Rocks” – it is a tradition for Mount students to visit and feast here to celebrate an experience full of dedicated service, challenging discussions an camaraderie.
What I learned in one day:
  1. Music and dance is a great way of experiencing culture
  2. The economic disparity in Hopkins is extreme
  3. Vibrant, culturally sound communities are not dependent on high income levels
  4. Garifuna drumming takes practice and more practice
  5. A group that works hard together can also have loads of fun together
Christian Kendzierski, assistant facilitator of Encounter Belize and Mount director of media relations
Belize Sunset 2014 - Encounter Belize - Office Of Social Justice
Today was an exciting day! Not only did we get to sleep in for an extra half hour, but we set out to explore two Mayan ruin sites. Our first stop was at Lubaantun, which translates to “place of the fallen stones” in modern Maya. Lubaantun is probably best known as the home of the mysterious Crystal Skull, which was discovered in 1924. For many of us this was our first experience at a ruin site. The site itself was as massive as it was beautiful. Lubaantun holds three ball courts, which were an important part of ancient Maya culture. After exploring these courts we set out to see the rest of the site which included the Butterfly Plaza, and the Sacred Alter. We recollected on the steps of the Great Plaza where we hung out in the shade and admired the beauty of where we sat.
Mayan Ruins - Crystal Skull - Belize
After a quick lunch in the car we arrived at our next site, Nim Li Punit. Nim Li Punit is home to many amazing sites. The first thing that we noticed when we arrived were large stone columns called Stelas. Each Stela had its own unique carving which portrayed texts or pictures of the Ancient Maya. These Stelas ranged in size, but Nim Li Punit is home to the largest one in Belize! Nim Li Punit was named after this massive Stela, which stands 14 feet tall! The Stelas weren’t the only thing worth noting about the site. Nim Li Punit is a royal burial site! Many of these tombs have been unearthed by archeologists, but are on display to the visitors. After we all had our fill of exploring the ruins we headed back to the van.
On our ride back to the retreat center many of us were exhausted from such an exciting day. Even though we were tired the van was still buzzing with memories and stories from the last week. It’s hard to believe how fast this week has gone. Tonight we are going into town for dinner to celebrate our last night in Punta Gorda, and celebrate an impactful week of service. Tomorrow morning we travel to Hopkins to start the final leg of our journey! Make sure you stay tuned for more to come!
Jack Nash, Class of 2013
Though this is a long-standing trip for the Office of Social Justice, it is always filled with new experiences--different people to meet and different perspectives to see as we try to deepen our understanding of both Belize and the various cultural and social systems at play in this beautiful country. Yesterday while we waited out the storm in Blue Creek, many of us enjoyed the opportunity to speak with the Vice Principal of Aguacate RC school and, seeing the interest so many of us had in the education system, he invited us to his school to observe classes and speak with more students. We gladly took him up on this opportunity.
Classroom in Belize
Upon arrival in Aguacate, we split into three groups and went to different classes.  Because their new school is currently being built, the temporary classrooms are scattered throughout the village. Infant 1 and 2 (grades K and 1 in the U.S. system) used the community health post, Standard 1 and 2 (grades 3 and 4) in the church building, and Standard 5 and 6 (grades 7 and 8) in the traditional school room. Some group members went to the Infant 1 and 2 class and got the chance to help with reading and music while those who went to Standard 1 and 2 got to listen to stories that the students had written. Having worked in a middle school before coming to the Mount, I was eager to stay with the Standard 5 and 6 students and see what they were learning. I walked into a very vibrant classroom--friends talking, some studying and reading, but I was caught by surprise when the whole class stopped what they were doing, and turned to me to greet me with a loud “morning, sir!” This immediately took me back to the time I spent working at Broughal Middle School where I would be greeted with “hey mister!”
As the years winds down for them, today was filled with tests and quizzes; I was there for just four hours, but it that time, they took tests in religion, language arts, math and science! This gave me the great chance to talk 1-on-1 with their teacher, as well as take their tests to see how I would do in Standard 6 in Aguacate. I learned a lot yesterday--first, I still don’t know how to use a protractor very well, nor do I know the parts of a circle (apparently ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are not parts of a circle). Second, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the peanut butter is just jelly on bread. Third, despite environmental differences the challenges that many teachers face in Belize parallel those in the states. Limited resources, absent parents, overcrowded classrooms and the stress of standardized assessments can greatly hinder an educator’s success in the class. Finally, educators around the world are agents of a relentless pursuit of justice for their students; empowering them to overcome odd within a system that all too often works against them. When I asked their teacher, Pablo, what his ultimate goal is as an educator, he said “students will choose to be what they want, but I want to help them be the best at whatever they choose.” I think, ultimately, this should be the goal of education, and one that I will carry with me back to the states.
Christian Quiz Bowl BelizeToday we went to the Blue Creek School to see the Christian Quiz Bowl competition. The competition was set up Jeopardy-style. There were four schools represented-Blue Creek, Aguacate, San Benito Pointe, and Santa Teresa. There were questions about the Bible and Catholicism. They began the event with the Belize National Anthem, a pledge to Belize and prayer. I enjoyed talking to the children who were in the audience with us; they were lots of fun! Claire and I also tried a drink called ideal for the first time. It was hard drinking juice out of a bag so I’m pretty sure I spilled most of it, but it was really good.
After the game was over (Aguacate won), there was a huge downpour while we had lunch in the same building. Some of the students were shy but many of them were happy to talk and laugh with us.
We also learned a lot about the schools here from the vice principal of Aguacate. He told us about the challenges that Mayan schools face as well as the development and progress that is being made. I am looking forward to visiting the Aguacate school tomorrow and seeing the students in a classroom.
Ashley Crosby, Class of 2014
Today on Tuesday, May 20th, marked our second day of service at the Red Cross in Punta Gorda, Belize. As a group, I think we were all excited and ready to get back to work. We spent majority of Monday organizing and painting, and we got a good amount accomplished in just that one day. Knowing what had to be done and working together, we walked in confident and ready to finish our service with the Red Cross.
Belize Red Cross service
We split into two separate groups to finish painting the inside and outside of the building. To say it was hot is a complete understatement. The sun was strong and the SPF was high, but each and every one of us were open to switching groups and encouraged each other throughout the morning regardless of the heat. Jack completed the outside work when all of us retreated inside and away from the sun. Even hot and sweaty, he kept a positive attitude and motivated us to keep up the good work.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, the group managed to paint the rest of the Red Cross center, inside and out. Eddy, Christian, and Jeff climbed the roof and painted the tough, hard to reach cracks that most of us couldn’t and were nervous to reach. Their bravery showed us that even doing the service of painting we can help each by doing work that some are afraid to tackle. Claire’s hard work and smart technique of putting a roller on the end of a broom allowed the high spots of the building to get evenly painted. She herself was a leader that whole day. Ashley was a dare devil and was one of the only ones who said she wasn’t afraid to paint while on a ladder. She climbed and painted like a champ, and was a huge help for the group. Jui took charge in the clean-up duty. She moved quick and got the place in order, all while singing and giving the group a good laugh. Her positive spirit showed the group even though service can be strenuous, we can smile and have a good time. Mickey was a big team player, after the fire ants had killed most of our feet, she said she would brave the grass and work even though those ants are little monsters. I tried my best to do the little jobs that needed assistance. It was a tough, HOT job but in the end our work with the Red Cross was a success. Through communication, motivation, and teamwork, the entire building was painted, and as a group I think we learned not only about one another, but about the importance of the Red Cross in Belize.
To end our night, we were fortunate enough to have a dinner and chat with two volunteers of the Jesuits, one of which was one of our own Mountainer, Pat Decker. They taught us a lot about the service they do, as well as explain the Mayan culture and what life is like in Belize. Learning from their experiences has taught me, as I’m sure everyone else, the greatness and uniqueness of the cultures here in Belize. I am so lucky to be on this immersion trip and words cannot describe this experience. The people, the environment, the villages, and everything about this country shows how beautiful of a world we live in. Stepping out of America and out of our comfort zones has taught us so much and we’re all so grateful and thankful. So thanks to all who allowed for this trip to happen and we will keep you posted on our next adventures.
Katie Sukeena, Class of 2015
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