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Our Belize Experience: Saying “Yes” to God

By Fred and Mildred Hoskins

Over the past couple of years, we have had a few thoughts that volunteering in some capacity with a Friends’ project outside the U.S. might be a fulfilling experience. However, our age (75) and other obligations kept tempering our ambitions.

We originally thought, with Fred’s interest in Quaker theology, biblical history and archeology, and with over 40 years of university teaching experience, that volunteering at the Friends Theological College in Kenya might be an option. However, not knowing exactly how we might fit in, and with the long travel time required to reach Kenya, at our age that didn’t feel like a logical choice.

Prior to the 2011 FUM Triennial, the only real knowledge we had that there was a Friends School in Belize was limited to what we read in passing in Quaker Life. But at the Triennial, we had the opportunity to meet and talk with Becky Barber and Candi Young from the Belize Friends School.

As we think back, we are absolutely convinced that God arranged that meeting and instilled in us the desire to do our part in furthering FUM’s educational ministry in Belize. Why God chose to ask a 75-year-old couple, who have some trouble moving about, and with several other health issues, to become ambassadors for the Belize Friends School, Sam and Becky Barber, their family and Ms. Candi Young (the teacher), we will never fully understand, but at that moment, we unconsciously said “Yes” to God!

Thus, in January and February 2012, we became the first volunteers at the Belize Friends School to stay for as long as three weeks. Cathy Hadley, a member of our meeting, made us aware of available funds from the Committee on Missions of Wilmington Yearly Meeting and they generously provided $500 to help offset our expenses. Then, God again provided assistance when, without our requesting it, our meeting, Dover Monthly Meeting, very generously contributed an additional $500. Both of these contributions allowed us to achieve much more during our mission to Belize.

Life in Belize

Belize has only been an independent country since 1981. It is a small country, about the size of the state of Massachusetts, with about 270,000 people. It is bordered on the south and west by Guatemala, on the north by the Yucatan (Mexico) and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. It is the only Central American country where the official language is English, but the “street” language is predominantly Creole (a mixture of Spanish, French, English and Mayan). The major ethnic groups are African, Spanish, Mayan, Chinese and Indian. Caucasians are few and mostly recent immigrants. There are two major Mennonite settlements in Belize (mostly from Canada and South America), and they are responsible for most of the agricultural development, but have only limited interaction with the general population. There are no major industries in Belize and, aside from tourism, there is no significant source of employment.

Street gangs and drugs are commonplace, making it somewhat dangerous to venture out at night. Among the poor, marriage is not the norm and men come in and out of a woman’s life at frequent intervals. Child abuse and molestation are widespread, as is robbery and assault. It is largely a matriarchal society, where most children are raised in one-parent households. Since men are transient, children often fear and have no respect for males.

Many of the students at the Belize Friends School live in small, one-room houses, often with no running water, plumbing or electricity. It is commonplace for eight or more people to live in this one room.

While there is public education in Belize, and the claimed literacy rate is about 90 percent, no education is free. Even at the primary level, tuition is equal to 140 U.S. dollars per year (this is a significant amount in Belize). At present, there is only space in high school for 60 percent of the students finishing primary school. Hence, no real effort is made in public schools to accommodate slow learners or to encourage students to pursue secondary education.

Belize Friends School

The Barbers and Ms. Candi Young are doing an unbelievable job with the students at the Friends School and, we are convinced, doing more than anyone in this country can appreciate. These three people are working with very limited resources. FUM provides a minimal operating budget for the school, which is dependent upon our donations. The Barbers are responsible for raising their own ministry expenses, which include all of their office, travel/vehicle, living, communication and deputation expenses, plus their salaries. Basic school supplies are scarce and expensive, textbooks are mostly hand-me-downs from the U.S. and some are 25 to 30 years old. A school uniform, consisting of khaki pants and a t-shirt, may cost U.S. $55-60.

Opportunities for Volunteers

Upon our arrival, after a two-and-a-half hour flight from Houston, the Barbers met us at the airport in Belize City. After a brief tour of the city, they dropped us off at the Coningsby Inn, seven blocks from school — our home for the next three weeks.

The plan for our stay in Belize was for Mildred to teach crafts every morning, and both Fred and Mildred would help with tutoring the students on an individual basis. We believed we could be effective in the classroom starting on the first day. However, we quickly learned that the students are naturally distrusting of foreigners, and it was almost two weeks before we were completely accepted and could truly make a significant contribution.

The three weeks we spent at the Belize Friends School was one of the most fulfilling experiences of our lives. It truly touched our hearts when, on our last day, every one of the students gave each of us a hug and called us “gramma” and “grampa.” A few even cried and told us they wanted us to stay. These kids deserve a chance and, God willing, we want to help them get it.

In the future, volunteers can play a significant role in maximizing the work at the Belize Friends School. However, based on our experience and observations, certain limitations should be observed. First, retired elementary and special education teachers could be valuable, but only if they stay for an absolute minimum of two weeks, and preferably longer. This is because of the extreme differences between the culture in Belize and the U.S. — it simply takes that long before the students accept and feel comfortable with outsiders.

Volunteers for shorter stays are always welcome and can be helpful, but should concentrate on short Bible studies or work projects rather than on formal classroom interaction. Couples could be a great asset as they would reinforce family values, which are largely unknown in these students’ lives.

Donations to the Belize Friends School will help provide school supplies, uniforms, funds for field trips, snacks, educational resources and publicity materials. Please be in prayer for the school as FUM considers opportunities to expand this valuable ministry in Belize.

We said “Yes” to God when he asked us to be ambassadors for the Belize Friends School. Our goal is to bring an awareness of the work the school is doing in Belize, and to make a plea to monthly meetings throughout FUM to help provide for some of the needs, both financially and through prayer.

Fred and Mildred Hoskins are members of Dover Monthly Meeting in Wilmington Yearly Meeting, Ohio.