Amy Gardiner - Public Health in Belize
My name is Amy Gardiner and I study biology and chemistry at Stockton University in the United States. I have begun to start the difficult journey of applying to medical school and the opportunity to volunteer abroad was something that could not be passed up. I visited San Pedro, Belize in December 2015 and fell in love with every aspect of the trip. It was the first time I was out of the United States, and the country of Belize instantly had my heart.
Arriving in Belize
When I returned from vacation in December, I started searching for internships abroad. I found Projects Abroad, and low and behold, Belize was one of their project countries. I felt safe knowing that I was going to an area I had recently been to, but in hindsight, the Projects Abroad team made me feel comfortable, and I am sure I would feel safe in any of their locations. The team does a fantastic job of monitoring the day to day occurrences of your project, which makes it easier for volunteers/interns to focus on their work and have a great time doing it. Last minute, I convinced my friend Brittney to come along with me, and the Projects Abroad team helped keep us together during our month long stay.
My host family
Traveling to Belize was easy; there are connecting flights from Belize City to San Pedro (or a water taxi if you prefer), where your volunteer coordinator will meet you. Our volunteer coordinator made sure we were in touch throughout our journey through Facebook messenger, and we were able to notify her when we got into Belize City. Once we met at the airport in San Pedro, we had lunch and then made our way to our host family. Leaving our host family was probably the hardest part of the trip. Our host mom, dad and sister were so sweet and caring, even though we were invading their space and home. They helped us to get the full experience and immerse ourselves in the culture in San Pedro. We had four host dogs – Cookie, Nina, Max and Buddy, who were equally hard to say goodbye to.
My Public Health placement
I was on the public health project for four weeks. The first week focused mainly on handing out surveys and collecting data on alcohol consumption and drug use from the employees of various dive shops along San Pedro’s beaches. The second week involved the interns gathering information and making posters for a health fair in Belize City. We traveled via water taxi and presented our posters on hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and nutrition to health care professionals. The interns were also responsible for creating talks to have with families involved in social services. One of the talks I had with a family was about stress, anxiety and depression. I mainly talked to the mother of the family and we discussed ways to handle the never ending stress of having a family and struggling to make ends meet. I am incredibly grateful for this experience, as it helps you to connect with people that you might not ever even know if you were just visiting the town. The time we had in between these projects were usually filled with working at the food bank at Lion’s Den, and we also had an opportunity to repaint a preschool.
At two in the morning on the third Monday of my stay, Brittney and I were awoken by our host family and text messages from the country director advising us to stay home because of a fire in town. The fire destroyed a section of town. For the next week the interns were involved in clean-up of the area, sorting through the incredible amount of donations we received, and helping get the displaced families back on their feet. We worked with the Red Cross, Lion’s Den and NEMO to create “care packages” for families that had everything from hygiene kits to mattresses. Our efforts for these families continued into the fourth week of our stay, but during these last two weeks we also were a part of the summer school program at Holy Cross. We would meet the children in the morning and go over math and language arts with them, and then the public health interns would discuss a topic, such as dental hygiene, exercise, and athletic injuries. We also took the kids outside to play at a park close by the school.
Traveling around Belize
All of the volunteers/interns are given time off on the weekends, and occasionally a few half days (Friday's usually) to enjoy the country. During our stay we went snorkeling at Tres Cocos, and had one of the best meals of my life on a little secluded beach on the back side of Ambergris Caye. Our tour guide cooked us lobster, potatoes and carrots, tortillas, etc; I could barely move by the end of the meal.
Brittney and I also went on an excursion where we horseback rode to the Mayan ruin Xunantunich. From there we went cave tubing, and then toured the Belize Zoo. If you're interested in going on excursions, the Projects Abroad team will work with you to find the most affordable and trusted tour guide to go with.
We also spent a few nights at the local beach bars, enjoying the night life. Most of the time we were tired, and after a delicious dinner prepared by our host family, we crashed into bed. Meeting up with the other volunteers and going to Truck Stop (a drive-in movie theater), and playing Heads Up and watching karaoke were just a few of the great nights spent in the town. The friendships that were made are those that defy country borders. Brittney and I still keep in touch with friends both in the United States and abroad.
I encourage anyone thinking about traveling and volunteering abroad to go for it. I of course recommend Belize, but any of the locations offered through Projects Abroad are sure to be an experience you’ll never forget. I am patiently awaiting my next project, and I am forever changed by this past summer in San Pedro.