A new multipurpose building nearing completion at St. Martin de Porres Parish in Belize City is just one result of Belize 2020, a partnership in which St. Louisans support Jesuit ministries in a poverty-stricken neighborhood known for drug-gang violence, unemployment and family instability.
The building will serve the parish, its school and community. Programs there will "keep students positively engaged and off the streets," said Misty Michael, coordinator of Belize 2020.
Belize 2020's Project HEAL focuses on education. A multi-year plan assists St. Martin de Porres School, administered by the Jesuits and serving 750 students in day care, preschool and elementary school programs.
Belize 2020, which still needs help and resources, began in 2014 in conjunction with the parish, St. John's College and High School in Belize, St. Louis University, the Jesuits and volunteers. It has branched into economic development, health care and pastoral services. The bolstering of the school began with the help of lay Catholics in St. Louis. The volunteers are helping implement practices used by the NativityMiguel schools in St. Louis such as Loyola Academy and St. Cecilia School, including an extended school day, summer school and high expectations.
"The children in the extended academic program are those who have the potential to succeed but just need a little extra push," Michael said. "Without that help, they could fall to the wayside."
Funding provides for a student and family counseling program to address high levels of trauma. More than 70 percent of the students show symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from family instability and life in one of the most violent neighborhoods of a nation with the fourth-highest homicide rate in the world.
Funding and technical assistance support a program for graduates of the school. The first students in the HEAL program to receive this help will graduate from St. Martin in June. They're eligible for a new scholarship program to attend high school.
With help from St. Louis University faculty, another program improves literacy skills in early and middle grades. SLU also assists St. John's College and High School in Belize City, including with two full-tuition fellowships per year to educators seeking graduate degrees not offered in Belize such as special education, early childhood education and educational leadership. Recipients agree to return to Belize for five years. Students from SLU help at St. John's and St. Martin's, and faculty from SLU assist a medical clinic.
"The coming together of the St. Louis community, spearheaded by St. Louis University, has really been heartwarming," said volunteer Mark LaBarge of St. Catherine Laboure Parish, adding that the future looks bright for neighborhood children with an education. "If you get them into high school, then move them into college, the opportunities just expand tremendously."
According to Jesuit Father Matthew Ruhl, pastor of St. Martin Parish and a former pastor of St. Matthew Parish in north St. Louis, a crackdown on drug-shipping lanes from Mexico to the U.S. resulted in drug smugglers using Belize as an alternative. The easy availability of drugs and lawlessness that results has plagued Belize City.
"You can trace much of Belize's drug problems to American drug consumption," said Father Ruhl, noting that not all of Belize has the problems that exist in the south side of Belize City. "It's a gorgeous country filled with a bouquet of humanity, the prettiest country in the world and the most gracious people as well."
>> Mission team
All Saints Parish in St. Peters has a Belize Mission Team that has traveled on several mission trips to the Central American country.
They travel to the Mayan villages of southern Belize. Surrounded by the rain forest, it's a remote area with limited electricity and running water. The work includes assisting villagers with construction of churches and libraries, providing medical assistance, and visiting schools to teach various lessons, but mostly to embrace their Belizean friends.
A trip in January included providing medical care, building a playground, laying tile in a church, helping with school lessons and more.
>> To Donate
To assist the project helping St. Martin Parish and schools in Belize, send a check payable to:
4511 West Pine Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63108
Attn: Advancement Office
Please write Belize 2020 on the memo line.
For information, visit www.belize2020.org or call (314) 977-6364.