Three times a year, University of Mississippi students join residents of a small community in Belize to build a road.
The San Mateo Empowerment Project in Belize is one of the university’s most popular Study Abroad programs. More than 100 Ole Miss students have participated in the project since 2010, raising more than $40,000 to support the construction of the road.
San Mateo, located north of San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye, needs many things. But most of all, the community needs roads. Without roads, utility companies can’t drive their trucks into the neighborhood to set up systems for electricity, water and sewers. Without roads, residents must walk to their homes, rain or shine, across narrow planks dubbed “London bridges” because they fall down.
Some have suffered serious injuries when they’ve fallen into the filthy, contaminated water.
The empowerment project’s spotlight on San Mateo has resulted in major improvements. Recently, the San Pedro Town Council and the Ministry of Works began upgrading and elevating streets throughout the entire island, including in San Mateo. The Belize Rotary Club is donating 200 water filters to the community to help alleviate problems with dangerous bacterial contamination of the community’s water supply.
It was Everette Robert Palacio’s daughter Miriam who first took Ole Miss students to her family’s home in San Mateo in 2010. Palacio’s son once fell off the “London bridges.” A nail sticking out of one of the planks tore his flesh, and he needed nine stitches. Palacio is grateful for the road and the university’s help.
“I don’t think the project would have (come) this far without the Mississippi support,” Palacio said. “My hope would be to see the road get done so utility companies can come in and make life better. Everyone can hook up electricity and the cost of living can go down.”
The project started as a Study Abroad course led by Kim Shackelford, associate professor of social work. Shackelford and other faculty travel with students to the tiny Central American coastal country each winter intersession, spring break and May intersession. They are currently seeking students for the January winter intersession project.
San Mateo is located less than a mile from white sandy beaches and businesses offering world-class diving and snorkeling. Most tourists don’t know it exists.
In 2010, Shackelford asked her students to survey the San Mateo community. They knew there had to be a solution for getting families out of such dangerous living conditions. Students conducted community assessments and held meetings in San Mateo churches. The final decision? Roads.
Jake McGraw, who graduated from Ole Miss in 2010, was part of that first Study Abroad group.
The San Mateo community “wanted to build roads, and they knew they had the manpower and the resources to do it here. What they lacked was the financial assistance,” McGraw said.
And that is where the San Mateo Empowerment Project began. More than 1,500 feet of hope have been built in two years, and a countless number of lives have been changed for the better.
If all goes as planned, there will be a road in front of every home in San Mateo by March 2013. The alumni of the project, who include people not only from The University of Mississippi but also from nine other colleges in the U.S. and Belize, plus volunteers from Canada, will gather during spring break 2013 for a celebration.
“It is important to celebrate the community’s success in becoming the solution to the problem they identified,” Shackelford said.
Kyla Giles, an exercise science major at The University of Mississippi, said the service-learning work changed her life.
She traveled to Belize during winter intersession in January, and it was her first trip out of the country.
“It opened my eyes to a lot that makes me want to change, to do more to help people,” Giles said. “I picked up rocks, shoveled sand, helped with pushing wheelbarrows. The people here are strong, and they want those roads.”
Building the road is hard and time-consuming. Workers clear away the mangroves and debris, including the “London bridges,” then stack limestone rocks on top of one another to a height high enough to clear the tide and then level sand on top of that.
“San Mateo is an unfortunate story, in a neighborhood and area that should have never been built in the first place,” said Tamara Sniffin, editor of The San Pedro Sun, a weekly newspaper in Ambergris Caye. “There is certainly a need for affordable land and housing on the island, but filling in mangroves and expecting people to live in that environment is not the answer.”
Leticia Chimilio, whose husband is a hauler for the road project, said Shackelford “is doing a very great job for every single soul in San Mateo, from kid to old.”
Ole Miss students not only support the road-building project in San Mateo, but also work with teachers in the schools and assist doctors and nurses at a public health clinic in San Pedro.
Earlier this year, they traveled to southern Belize to work in schools in Punta Gorda.
In July, a consortium of higher education administrators in the U.S. and Belize held its annual conference in Oxford.
The interdisciplinary Study Abroad project has attracted faculty and students from various departments, including social work, health and exercise science, legal studies, education, communication science and disorders, nutrition and hospitality management and journalism.
“Many of the alumni (of the project) have gone on to work in areas of Mississippi that benefit from the skills, knowledge and values instilled during their time in Belize,” Shackelford said.
Krista Davis, a social work major at The University of Mississippi’s Tupelo campus, was one of two dozen students who did service-learning work in Belize earlier this year. She said nothing can compare to experiencing another culture firsthand.
“I feel like you can’t get all of that in a textbook, no matter how hard you try,” Davis said. “I’m planning on ways to save up money to go back next year and the next.”
Valencia Hoard, a social work major on the university’s DeSoto campus, said of her experience in Belize: “I’m learning to serve more. And I’m serving to learn.”
Shackelford said a reporter in Belize once asked her why she thought people from Mississippi could make a difference in San Mateo.
Her answer: “People from Ole Miss know that people and communities can change. You just have to believe and be willing to work hard.”
The deadline for applications for the January winter intersession class is Oct. 10. Applications are available in the Study Abroad Office in Martindale.
To learn more about the San Mateo Empowerment Project, including a documentary narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, and about Division of Outreach efforts in Belize, go to http://www.outreach.olemiss.edu/study_abroad/san_mateo_empowerment_proje…. For video and TV segments about the students and the project, go to olemisslife.com.