Students' Mission of Hope in Belize
Deep in the heart of northern Belize, far from the tourist-filled Caribbean beaches, Heritage students Carmen Mendez and Jose Ibarra are on a mission. They and eight other members of the University’s Enactus (formerly SIFE) chapter are helping families in the small town of Guinea Grass set up businesses that will provide sustainable incomes and help a neighboring community deal with too many plastic bags. The projects are part of ongoing efforts by Enactus to help individuals and communities transform their lives through the entrepreneurial spirit.
“This is an area of extreme poverty. So many houses are made of straw and cardboard, whatever they can find. There is no electricity or indoor plumbing,” said Mendez, member of Enactus and president of Heritage’s Student Government Association. “When we learned about the need, all we could think about was ‘how can we help?’”
Work on the Belize projects began last fall when the family of chapter president Haydee Navarro asked if Heritage Enactus could help the town of San Estevan corral the abundance of plastic grocery bags littering their neighborhoods. The team, who had been looking for an international project for some time, was interested, especially since they had already started a successful bag recycling program with school children in the Yakima Valley several years before. They wanted to do something more impactful than cleaning up a community, however. They wanted to make lasting economic changes.
While researching ways to turn trash into a marketable resource, the students came across a video demonstrating how to crochet coasters using simple grocery bags. It was the solution they were looking for, and so with help from community leaders in Belize, they set up a school recycling
program in San Estevan. The bags that the children collected became the yarn for women in Guinea Grass to crochet into handcrafted goods. When the team traveled to Belize, they took with them crochet supplies for 15 women.
“We really underestimated the level of interest we would encounter,” said Mendez. “We had over 60 women show up to participate in the project. Now we are putting together more supplies to ship to them.”
The recycling and crocheting projects aren’t the entire story. While one part of the team worked to eliminate plastic bags, others were working with 15
families to establish chicken farms. The students delivered starter kits, 25 baby chicks, antibiotics and bird vitamins to disadvantaged families that had been recruited by community leaders. These families had all been identified prior to the students’ trip and local volunteers had helped them construct rustic chicken coops to house the birds.
“We did something like this several years ago in Mexico to great success,” said Navarro. “The Chicken Coop Project has a dual benefit in that families can sell the eggs and have food for their tables.”
Undertaking three such projects 3,000 miles away in another country required a great deal of planning and volunteers in both countries. Everything from the supplies for the Chicken Coop Project to the school partner for the bag collection to identifying the participants had to be laid out long before the students left the United States.
“Our volunteers in Belize became honorary Enactus members,” said Navarro. “They really were instrumental in getting us connected with the resources needed to make this work and with families who could benefit from the projects, who would also follow through on what they learned.”
Now that the Enactus team is back on campus, the work is far from over. The students are as busy as ever setting up social media sites for the women to sell their crocheted wares. And they are continuing to work with new farmers through a partnership established with the Belize Department of Agriculture.
“This trip and these projects are all about giving someone a chance to become self-sufficient and to better their lives,” said Mendez. “As great as it
feels to be part of starting this project, it will be even better when we can see the impact it makes over time.”