by Jamie Schombs
We all know that life is beyond bad in developing countries, right? But how bad is it, really, and who is making a difference?
I knew almost nothing about Belize, the country in Central America, when I left on March 17 to spend a week there with nine other faculty and administration members from Loyola School in Manhattan. We had one goal: to build a house for a family in need. As a Jesuit Catholic school, one of the highest values to which Loyola holds its students is the commitment to doing justice. Shockingly, never before had there been a faculty service trip. Since 2003, select Loyola seniors had been making the trip to Belize City each June to work with Hand-in-Hand Ministries, a Catholic organization dedicated to charity work. The faculty was overdue to experience the same.
Hand-in-Hand seeks motivated volunteers, preferably no more than 15 or so per group, to donate approximately $3,500 toward building supplies for a house. Each group is then encouraged to jump on a plane and meet at Hand-in-Hand Ministries’ “Starfish House” in Belize City where the organization supplies housing, three meals a day prepared by a talented Belizian cook and a facetious guide named James.
On the day we arrived, everyone hopped into the signature white Hand-in-Hand van for a tour of the city and a glimpse of the worksite. We were able to meet Joline, this week’s housing candidate and Hand-in-Hand employee of its Outreach Center for impoverished children and HIV patients.
Six people will live in the little two-room, wooden house we would build, about the same size as my bedroom at home. Joline is a single mother; the house would be for herself and her three children and two young nieces. Other relatives will remain in the original house on the same property. The family will have to obtain electricity and running water itself, which will cost another few thousand Belize dollars. The minimum wage in Belize is the equivalent to $1.25 in American dollars. Joline and her family joined us in our work every day, whether it was grabbing a hammer and tackling a wall or generously sharing food in thanks for our help.
With the aid of Hand-in-Hand’s expert contractors, Beto and Fonso, we built a house in less than a week. Each morning, I would suit up for a day of hard construction under the harsh Belizian sun in 90-degree weather in my Indiana Jones hat, Aviators, a T-shirt, jeans and hiking boots. Step one was to slather on sunscreen, which became a sticky debacle when mixed with the sweat, dirt and sawdust. We spent our days in constant battle, whether it was with four-inch nails that simply refused to hammer in straight or shutters that needed to be resized multiple times to fit stubborn stiles. Beto and Fonso were good-natured and patient, challenging each of us to develop skills we never knew we had.
James was sure our group would have the most difficulty of all. How could such a dogmatic group (we all know teachers have their own opinions and aren’t afraid to express them) work well together? We proved him wrong. As members of the same team, we grew closer and trusted one another. We learned each other’s strengths and naturally stepped into roles: the circular saw and measuring gurus, the hammer powerhouses and the paint specialists. I had never felt such camaraderie.
Charity work is always a humbling experience. It demands that we acknowledge global issues and work together to make a difference, even if that change is only in the lives of one small family. Coming from a public school background, I never expected to find such a strong school community.
At Loyola, the focus is on educating the whole person and cultivating young men and women for others. We have lost these values in American culture. Our primary responsibility as educators is to teach our students to be good global citizens – to care about others, to stand up for one’s beliefs, and to develop the skills to make a difference.
A service trip like Belize starts a fire in one’s soul to help others whenever and wherever possible.[divider] Jamie Schombs is from Astoria. She is a library media specialist at Loyola School.