When the motherland calls

As the U.S. pulls out of world affairs, an SN&R columnist looks back on improving education in her birth country

Joey Garcia writes the Ask Joey column for SN&R.

Joey Garcia writes the Ask Joey column for SN&R.

Photo courtesy of Joey Garcia

Find out more about the 2019 Belize Writers’ Conference at joeygarcia.com/events.

After my parents and I became naturalized United States citizens, they saw little reason to return to Belize. My first trip back was at 27 years old. I had just quit my job as a senior corporate executive and moved from New Jersey back to California to figure out who I was.

I climbed down the staircase from the plane and walked on the runway, engulfed by damp, warm air. In the one-room airport, I handed my passport to an officer. “Welcome home!” he said.

In Belize, the stereotypes I encountered in the U.S. didn’t apply. No one assumed I was a Latina from my Hispanic surname. No one expected me to be fluent in Spanish, either. English is the official language, a holdover from its history as a British colony. Belize is also far more Caribbean than Latin, as was my upbringing. My family is multiracial, but primarily black. Like me, Belize belongs to Latin America but doesn’t quite fit in.

My aunt and cousins gave me tours of Mayan temples, the family land, rural villages and exquisite white-sand islands off the coast.

I had no inkling that seven years later, I’d be doing more than swimming alongside nurse sharks in the Caribbean Sea. In the last 16 years, I’ve organized free summer schools for more than 1,000 Belizean kids, and launched the first writer’s conference and literary fellowship in the country’s history. This year, I was a finalist for a Global Woman Influencer award for my work.

My commitment to the country feels especially significant now as the U.S. pulls away from its role as a mentor, enforcer and investor in politically and economically struggling countries.

As Americans, we can lament this sea change, or we can each invest in the homelands our government abandons. It’s hard—as someone who requires copious amounts of solitude, I had to learn to push back against exhaustion and anxiety while managing volunteers and projects. Any developing country, even one that is a cultural or spiritual home, brings intractable challenges: unreliable infrastructure, institutional corruption and underappreciated human capital.

Without the Rise Up Belize! scholarship, Felice Salam would have had to drop out of high school. He hopes to attend medical school one day.

Photo courtesy of Joey Garcia

It was the human capital—the creative, intelligent Belizean spirit—that I wanted to protect, inspire and uplift.

Rise up

“If there’s ever anything I can do for you, let me know.”

It was 2002, and a Catholic bishop in Belize had just signed a document I needed. Thanking him, I thought he might request books or candy in return. I laughed out loud when he asked for a teacher training program instead.

He wasn’t joking. In 2002, many of Belize’s primary school teachers only had high school diplomas. Even those with two-year college degrees struggled with classroom management and lesson plans. We hoped new teaching methods would reverse the country’s abysmal education rates.

About 50 percent of eligible school-aged children attend primary school in Belize; only 30 percent finish. Of these, about 25 percent attend high school and only 3 percent continue to university.

The problem is also financial—50 percent of Belizean children live in poverty. Belizean schools are promoted as tuition free, but they charge “fees” equivalent to what tuition used to cost—about $200 USD a year for primary school and up to $3,000 USD a year for high school—in addition to books and uniforms. In the U.S., elementary school attendance is enforced, so there are no equivalent dropout statistics, but about 25 percent of high school freshman fail to graduate on time in Belize.

In 2003, and with the help of friends, I formed Rise Up Belize! Advancement through Education, a nonprofit that began providing free professional development training programs for primary school teachers. The Ministry of Education certified our programs, empowering Belizean teachers to earn continuing education credits through us.

Joey teaching a class of high school freshman at Bishop Martin High School in Orange Walk Town, Belize.

Photo courtesy of Joey Garcia

A year later, three Belizean moms tracked me down.

“The children need things to do in the summer. Not sports,” one said. They were right. All I’d seen were fire-and-brimstone Bible camps, soccer clinics and expensive programs meant for the children of expats. With help, I started a leadership program for teen girls in Sacramento that also benefited children in Belize, so that each donated dollar did double duty. After four months training in the skills of a classroom teacher, the teens traveled with chaperones to Belize to teach rigorous academic summer schools offered free to Belizean children.

Through the years, over 100 Sacramento-area teens taught more than 1,000 Belizean children.

In 2016, exhausted from investing full-time volunteer hours in Rise Up Belize! while also working a full-time job, I retired the program. Our work helped change the Belizean education system’s reliance on rote learning, and encouraged the adoption of meaningful, hands-on instruction. Students who had attended our summer school programs frequently qualified to skip a grade the next school year. Our teen volunteers were surprised to learn that by sophomore year, they had received a better education than high school graduates in Belize. We helped prove that Belizean children benefit most from teachers with at least a two-year degree. The standard has since been changed.

We also identified kids in our summer schools who needed scholarships, but as “C” students were unlikely to receive any. With support from private donors and, later, the Soroptimist International of Metropolitan Sacramento, we began providing them. One young man received a four-year high school scholarship and spent one July teaching in one of our summer schools. He is now a police officer in Belize. Every one of our scholarship recipients has continued into successful careers in law enforcement, education, medicine, or banking. More importantly, they have each paid it forward by subsidizing the education of their younger siblings. Our scholarship program continues, although we do occasionally accept students with high GPAs.

While supervising our summer schools in Belize, I discovered that Belizean children could not name one homegrown author or poet. They are not alone. Belize is near twin in size to Wales in the U.K. or Massachusetts in the U.S., but while most Americans could name writers from those locales, they would be hard-pressed to identify a Belizean author or poet.

At the 2017 Brooklyn Book Festival, when I wondered aloud where I might find Belizean authors, a man responded, not unkindly: “Belize? Do they write?”

So last April, I launched the first writer’s conference ever held in Belize, bringing two New York literary agents in as faculty for the mix of 20 U.S. and Belizean writers who attended. With generous funding from Anya Fernald, CEO of Belcampo Meat Co. in San Francisco, I was also able to establish the first literary fellowship for a Belizean writer in the history of the country. As I plan for the 2019 Belize Writers’ Conference, I’m looking forward to the day when Belizean writers are included in the international literary canon.

A global woman

Last summer, I sat in the decked-out ballroom at the Sheraton Times Square, surrounded by women from everywhere: South Africa, Ghana, the Netherlands, France, the U.K., Albania, Peru, Brussels, Belgium, India, Bali. Many of the finalists for the Global Woman Influencer awards were women who had stepped forward with innovative programs to fill gaps created by governments and institutions that had cut or reduced aid to vulnerable populations around the world.

What if each person living in an industrialized country gave their personal time, energy, and financial resources every year to the people in countries most at risk? What if we each cared personally and deeply for those outside our borders? We would then become international citizens, and embody the religious, spiritual, and biological concept of one human family. Politics may continue to try to divide us, but valuing one another will always keep us whole.