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Dunedin charity funds education in Belize
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Photo courtesy of LAURA CONNELLY
These are three of the Standard VI students who are applying for sponsorship with Belize Hope. This program would pay the costs to be able to attend high school.
DUNEDIN – Some children may groan about going to school each day, but there are many places in the world where there is no free education. In Belize, students and their parents must pay for uniforms, books, school supplies, lunch, exams, and other expenses.

In a country with high unemployment, more than 4 in 10 people living in poverty, and 23 percent of the population older than 15 still unable to read and write, this often makes affording education impossible.

Belize Hope is a new Dunedin-based nonprofit organization that aims to allow more children to afford school and to help teachers gain better skills and methods. It was founded by members of First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin and has partnered with numerous organizations, including the Rotary Club of Dunedin North, the Rotary Club of Seminole Lakes, and other groups. First Presbyterian has held mission trips to Belize for the past seven years and saw the need for such a program.

“Unemployment is high,” said Laura Connelly of Dunedin, executive director of Belize Hope. “I think the average income in Belize is about $6,500 a year U.S., and education is not free. The cost of high school is about $1,000 U.S. It’s hard to imagine spending one-sixth of your annual income on just one child going to high school. It doesn’t happen. So only about 50 percent of high school aged students are actually enrolled in high school.”

Drugs and gangs are prevalent, and children who are unable to attend school are at a much higher risk of falling into these crowds, said Connelly and Natalie Wernberg of Palm Harbor, co-founder of Belize Hope. The lack of literacy is a major problem, Wernberg said. Connelly added that this and the general lack of education leads to low job prospects and continuing this cycle.

Beverly Fisher of Dunedin, vice president for the Belize Hope board, has led numerous trips to Belize with First Presbyterian, and she also has worked with the Belize Ministry of Education.

“That was really helpful to have those contacts in place because we really looked at teacher education as being a part of the sustainability of what we’re doing,” Fisher said. “If the teachers don’t have adequate training, then you don’t have a quality education for the kids. A lot of these teachers have third- to ninth-grade educations. I know more and more are ­getting college degrees, but they really do need help.”

Connelly added that about 1 in 5 teachers can’t pass the primary school exams themselves, so there clearly is a strong need for teacher training. Furthermore, about two-thirds of the teachers have had no formal teacher training, she said.

Belize Hope officially launched this year, and the five-member, all-volunteer board of directors is in the process of selecting students to which to sponsor during the next school year. These high school sponsorships are $1,000 each and will pay for students’ uniforms, special school shoes, school supplies, lunch money, books, and exam fees. The organization also will provide teacher training, Connelly said, in order to bring them to a higher level of competency.

“The third aspect is working with partner schools to create a physical environment that’s more conducive for education,” Connelly said. “So for example, this year we selected one school, and the Rotary Club of Dunedin provided money to buy them a new freezer and refrigerator at the school so they could launch a feeding program so the students could bring their lunch.”

Additionally, the sponsorship program also includes a Saturday mentoring program that the kids are required to attend once a month.

“This is really where the people from Belize and the Rotarians of Belize are going to be extremely helpful,” Connelly said. “All of the Belize Hope students will get together and we will work on spiritual formation, career planning, college planning, team building, leadership development, life skills. We’ll celebrate religious holidays and birthdays, and they’ll also have that opportunity to communicate via letters and videos with their sponsors back here in the States.”

Each of the students also will be required to participate in at least 10 hours of community service each year, stay drug- and alcohol-free, and not be involved in any type of gang or violent activities. The students also must be living with a parent or guardian who commits to being involved in the student’s education and to support this endeavor.

The goal is to sponsor at least 10 students for the 2014-15 school year. Donations for that school year are due by Saturday, May 31, as interviews are already underway and the final selected students will be announced on Monday, June 9. Full sponsorships are $1,000, and half-sponsorships are also available for $500. Donations at these amounts will grant the donor ongoing interaction with a specific student, so they can follow him or her through their educational experience. However, donations of any amount also are greatly appreciated. Any donations past the May 31 deadline will go toward sponsorships for the next school year and teacher training. The nonprofit is run by all volunteers, so all money goes directly to the program, with no overhead.

The goal is to pick students who have the best chance to succeed, and once selected, Belize Hope will help offer support – even paying for extra tutoring if necessary – so the student can successfully graduate from high school. If a student fails to meet the program’s requirements along the way, they would be put on probation.

Another prong of the program is teacher training. Last summer, Fisher and Jodie Cannon, a member of First Presbyterian and also the marketing PR coordinator for Belize Hope, trained 50 teachers in Belize regarding effective ways to teach math in the equivalent of grades 5 and 6. For instance, they taught how to use manipulatives to help kids be more hands-on and allow the subject to come alive for them. This summer, the group will train about 20 science teachers. Once the teachers are trained, they can help train more teachers, which adds to self-sustainability in the program, Fisher said.

“Basically it’s to teach a student-centered or child-centered learning environment,” Fisher said.

“Math Bingo could be an example of a manipulative,” Connelly added. “I think that the teachers are so thirsty for the knowledge and are so excited to learn new strategies. They haven’t been given many opportunities for that.”

Fisher said that they also are teaching the Belize teachers about the importance of allowing students to get up and move around in class because this facilitates learning. Often the school style in Belize is very traditional, where students are in their chairs all day, listening to lectures. Wernberg added that given the high gang populations, conflict resolution skills also are extremely important. Corporal punishment was only recently disallowed in schools, so often teachers need to learn other, more effective ways of dealing with behavior issues.

To American eyes, the differences in living conditions in Belize can be surprising. The houses are very small, often with only one or two rooms, Wernberg said. There often is no running water or electricity, Connelly said. There is no air conditioning, and the infrastructure is challenging, but the classrooms are clean, Fisher said. The environment is beautiful, too, Wernberg said, from the gorgeous hibiscus and other plant life to the ocean breeze and the vibrant colors everyone dresses in.

“It’s a world of contrast,” Wernberg said.

Even though they don’t have much, the people are wonderful, they all agreed.

“They’re beautiful people,” Connelly said. “They’re very happy people. Even though they’re not wealthy by American standards, they’re a loving people and have a lot of simple happiness. From our first trip there, those kids have wrapped themselves around our hearts. And they have a lot of potential and want help. They’re very open to asking for help and for a kind of knowledge transfer.”

For more information, visit www.b­elize­hope.­org or www.f­acebo­­m/bel­izeho­pe.

How to help

Pay online at www.b­elize­hope.­org or send a check written out to Belize Hope and send it to Belize Hope Inc., 2519 N. McMullen Booth Road, Suite 510-184, Clearwater, FL 33761.

• Full donations of $1,000 or partial sponsorships of at least $500 will allow for interaction between the donor and the sponsored student.

• Donations received by Saturday, May 31 will go toward the 2014-15 school year, and any received after that will go for the following school year and teacher training.
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