For most people, Belize is a tropical paradise with white, sandy beaches, beautiful blue ocean water and a fun-filled night life.
For most people, Belize is a tropical paradise with white, sandy beaches, beautiful blue ocean water and a fun-filled night life that abounds with good food, drink, and entertainment. Located on the east coast of Central America, it borders Mexico on the north, Guatemala on the west and south, and the Caribbean on the east.
But there is another side of Belize that most tourists do not see. This was the side that Green Local Schools administrator Julie McMahan saw for a week during a recent trip to the country.
It all started when her husband Dana forgot his daughter Katey's birthday. She was attending Oklahoma City University, a small, private Methodist school, and he apologized via e-mail. When he asked her what he could give her for a present she asked for money for a trip to Belize. At first he thought she was joking - until he called and she told him she wanted to go there as part of a mission project to help build a school. She also told him they were looking for some chaperones to go along.
Katey told her supervisor, Dr. Charles Neff, about the work Julie did with non-profit organizations and her passion for education. After talking with them, Neff invited Julie and Dana to come along as chaperones.
"I was really excited about this opportunity," Julie said. "With my background in non-profit organizations and education, I really felt this was a great opportunity to help in a good cause."
Belize itself has two very different societies. One is the one that tourists sees, the vacation paradise. The other is one where the average income is $2,000 and the people live in huts with dirt floors and gasoline is $8 a gallon.
"In Belize, the government provides the teachers," Julie said, "but the people must build the schools. In addition, if you want to send your children to school, you must pay tuition. For elementary students it is $25 a month in grades one through six, plus uniforms, transportation and meals. For high school (and) grades seven through 12, it is $400 dollars a semester along with uniforms, transportation and food."
Given the small income that most families have, education for many is unaffordable, Julie said. At other times, families must decide which of the children will have the opportunity to learn.
"So if there are a number of children, boys get preference over their sisters,” Julie said. “Families send as many children as possible, but parents must ultimately decide which child receives an education and which do not."
When a family could afford to send a child to school, great care was taken to ensure that the child got the most out of the experience. Parents were proud of the opportunity they could offer their children. McMahan noted that mothers took great care to make sure their children's school uniforms were clean and bright.
The volunteers in Julie’s group began their day at 6 a.m. with breakfast. After the meal, the group took a 25-minute ride to the construction site where they worked eight to nine hours with the local laborers. Julie McMahan was in charge of a small construction group that worked installing metal rebars and rods for support in columns for the high school building, while the local elementary school was temporarily located in a hurricane shelter."
In addition to working at the construction site, she also worked with abused, neglected and abandoned children in a village and group homes. Their homes were small huts with mud floors.
"The huts were very small, maybe eight-by-12 with eight-foot ceilings,” Julie said. “They were the size of my office at the CAB. For water, the women and children walked two miles and it had to be boiled upon returning before being consumed. Children and family members slept on hammocks hung at different levels"
Although Julie only spent a week in the country, her heart quickly warmed to the people she met and worked with.
"In the short time we were there I really fell in love with the people and the country and their sense of value and appreciation for education,” Julie said. “We were asked to come back in March and June to help with summer camp. I don't know if that will be possible, but I do hope I am able to return soon to continue what I started."