Imagine living in a shack that sits on stilts over a lagoon filled with sewage and garbage. The only means of getting from one house to another is to walk on dangerous plank bridges.
This and other harsh realities – including child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, poor nutrition and hunger – are what schoolchildren in poverty-stricken San Mateo, Belize must face every day. These conditions have led compassionate University of Mississippi students into an ongoing effort to change the children’s lives for the better.
In January, a team of 13 Ole Miss students and two professors is traveling to the impoverished area for a three-week Study Abroad trip. While there, the students will assist the people of San Mateo in replacing the plank bridges with gravel and sand roads. Other activities scheduled during the Wintersession trip include providing food for the workers, helping local women launch a cooperative sewing business, and taking social work and exercise science classes.
Both the Department of Social Work and Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation Management are part of UM’s School of Applied Sciences. There is an interdisciplinary effort within the school for each department to add to the work being done in Belize. The School of Engineering is also assisting in the effort.
“Each student will be assigned a child and a classroom to be a mentor-tutor and teacher’s aide at the Holy Cross Anglican School,” said Kim Shackelford, an associate professor of social work who has traveled to San Mateo with UM students each year since 2008. “The social work students will be learning to complete assessments of children and families and intervention plans in an environment that has few formal resources, but many informal resources.”
“The exercise students will be conducting physical fitness tests on the children and teaching them about physical fitness,” said Martha Bass, assistant professor of health, exercise science and recreation management who is also making this year’s trip. “They will also organize play activities for recess and participate in afterschool activities such as drumming, soccer or possibly art classes as a few of our students are artists.”
Students conducted several fundraisers in preparation for the trip. Activities have included a yard sale, dinner and karaoke night, a charity jewelry sale and donation of proceeds from the Oxford Chick-fil-A and El Milagro restaurants. They also conducted an International Conference for Social Workers.
A very poor community built on a lagoon near San Pedro, San Mateo includes more than 140 households. Most homes are 10-by-10-foot buildings standing on stilts. Residents walk on planks to get from one building to another.
“The construction of roads will remove a serious safety hazard for children and lead to wider access to water, electricity and sewage systems for thousands of San Mateo residents,” Shackelford said.
San Mateo’s citizenry were not a close-knit community before UM students became involved in volunteer efforts to empower them to improve their living conditions.
“The students’ work in the past and current work brings the community together and encourages trust amongst each other and trust of persons from outside who want to help,” Shackelford said. “Community school directors have told me that the empowerment of the community members has led to parents becoming more active in their children’s education.”
Ole Miss students who have become involved in the humanitarian program and its many outreaches describe their experiences as “eye-opening” and “life-changing.” Though several have since graduated from UM, many remain actively involved through the San Mateo Empowerment Project.
“It is very important for each new group of students to understand that the foundation of the project is the mutual respect and friendship between our two communities,” said Jake McGraw, a senior public policy leadership and economics major from Oxford. McGraw helped establish the nonprofit organization, which has its own website and link on Facebook.
“This trip is an opportunity for the students to build the relationships with people in San Mateo that will sustain the SMEP in the future,” McGraw said.
A Belizean reporter asked Shackelford why she thought that Ole Miss can accomplish what is needed in the San Mateo community when no one has before.
“I said, ‘People from Ole Miss know that people and communities can change. You just have to believe and be willing to work hard,’” Shackelford said. “I have heard students say, ‘We believe in the people of San Mateo. They are good, hard-working people and have shown us a tremendous amount of love. We want to give back even though it is not as much as we receive from being here.’”
To learn more about the project, go to http://www.outreach.olemiss.edu/study_abroad/ or make donations at http://www.sanmateoempowerment.org/
For more information about the Department of Social Work, go to http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/socialwork/; about the Department of Exercise Science, go to http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/hesrm/; and about the School Applied Sciences, go to http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/applied_sciences/