Volunteer Review: Evan O., Public Health in Belize
When I volunteered with Projects Abroad, I was a sophomore and biochemistry major at Northeastern University. I traveled to Belize from Boston, Massachusetts during my spring break in early March of 2017. I volunteered with the Public Health program, joining fellow “spring breakers” and full-time volunteers.
When you arrive in Belize City, you transfer onto a plane company called Tropic Air. This was a small plane that brought you to the Ambergris Caye, a small island off the coast of Belize, in just 20 minutes. What an adventure this first plane ride was! The view is spectacular, and was the perfect introduction to the adventure and beauty I would find in my week spent in San Pedro.
My Public Health placement
For my work as a Public Health volunteer, I interacted with the community at a close and personal level. For the first couple of days, my fellow volunteers and I learned about the prevalence and consequences of diabetes and heart disease in San Pedro. While these facts were saddening, it was inspiring to know what a difference a simple blood glucose or blood pressure test could make. We spent hours making posters to communicate to the public how important it was to keep your health, sugar level, and blood pressure in check!
We then went into the field, educating anyone who passed by, the young, the elderly, men, women, children; anyone who would give us an ear! We heard a lot of concerning inaccuracies about diabetes and heart disease, and it was exciting to spread the truth about their health. For people with extremely high blood pressures or blood glucose levels, we referred them to the on-site nurse, Cora, who directed them to the polyclinic; this is like a local clinic that treats a myriad of illnesses. It was so empowering to really feel like you were making a difference, all while helping people live longer, better lives.
We also toured the main hospital in Belize City. This was a day long trip. We received a tour of the entire hospital from one of the directors. He was so enthusiastic about the progress this hospital has made in just the past few years, it was hard not to feel just as optimistic about the state of healthcare in Belize. This trip was not only interesting, but also reflective; it made me appreciative of the level and breadth of care we have in the US.
The director also talked about US physicians and nurses that volunteered their time a couple months out of the year to fill empty or strained positions in the ICU and general care departments. As someone who wants to go into medicine, I can see myself going back to Belize once I qualify as a physician, although at the rate their healthcare is improving, I’m not sure that they’ll need me.
Life in Belize
I stayed with a local host family in the DVC district of San Pedro. I rode my bike to and from work, about a 2-mile bike ride; I never once felt unsafe and it was a beautiful ride. I stayed with Emerson, his wife Princessa, and their three beautiful children. Staying with a host family was such an eye-opening experience, and I truthfully cannot see myself traveling without doing so again; the exposure to culture and delicious local food (Thank you Princessa!) was unparalleled to any backpacking or hotel lodging I’d done before.
My host family was so considerate and helpful, that I felt at home after the first couple of days. At the end of my trip, they provided me with their contact information and said that if I was ever in San Pedro again, I would have a place to stay. This generosity and amiability is not unique to my host family; the majority of the people I met in Belize shared this attitude. I would recommend staying with a host family no matter where you travel; the experience you receive is something you will never forget.
I cannot conclude my story without mentioning the outstanding support of the Projects Abroad staff in San Pedro. I was mentored in public health training, given a tour of the island and lecture on the health disparities in San Pedro, and given a tour of the hospital all through Cora, who is a certified nurse from the US. Cora moved from Arizona to San Pedro after meeting her current husband, and she now lives there with her beautiful daughter.
Cora was incredibly helpful, and always had an open ear to any problems me and any of the other volunteers may have faced. She was extremely knowledgeable on the islands inhabitants, whether it be their customs, culture, or healthcare opinions/facts. She was a shoulder to lean on when we encountered uncomfortable social situations in the field and made a huge different in my total experience with Projects Abroad.
Secondly, I was greeted at the airport by another Projects Abroad staff member, Ashty. Ashty is a Belizean native who was essential to my enjoyment and success in San Pedro. She was always available to help, no matter the time of day, and because of this I always felt safe and secure. No matter what we needed, she provided. She provided a local phone so that I could communicate with the other volunteers and local businesses, and a bike so that I could easily move between my home, the volunteer office, and extracurricular activities. Like Cora, Ashty’s presence was a difference maker in my experience as a member of Projects Abroad.
In sum, a combination of my specific project, my host family, the Projects Abroad support staff, and everything Belize had to offer made my trip something I will never forget, something I will hope to replicate when I go back for over a month next summer!
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.