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Sophie Handloff - Public Health in Belize

Sightseeing in Belize

My name is Sophie Handloff and I am 17 years old. I am going to be a senior in high school in Rockville, Maryland, USA this coming fall and I am currently busy with the college application process. I’m studying for standardized testing, writing essays and deciding how big of a college I want to go to and what I want to major in. The summer before my senior year was the perfect opportunity for me to try something different and focus on the future (or as my mom would say, to “look a little more interested in the idea that I’m going to college and am going to need to make some decisions.”)

I am a people person. I love to talk, laugh and make people happy. I knew I wanted to major in some sort of combination of public health, health behavior science or nursing, but I needed reassurance to be sure of what I wanted. Through Googling and some research, I found Projects Abroad and proposed it to my parents. I don’t speak Spanish and my parents didn’t want me to be too far away, so the Public Health Project in San Pedro, Belize, seemed to be perfect for me. Summer 2017 brought me to this inspiring island for a month of adventure, growth and the reassurance I needed to make decisions about my future.

My host family

Sophie teaches children about hygiene

My trip to San Pedro consisted of three flights. It was a long day of travel, however when I arrived I was greeted with a smile and I couldn’t wait for what the next month was going to hold. I was picked up in a golf cart and as we drove along the streets, people waved and said hello. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming. I was brought to my host family’s bright blue home and immediately fell in love with my host mom, her brother and her two kids. I spent the afternoon coloring and playing cards with my new brother and sister and then we had an amazing dinner prepared by my host mom.

My host mom is easily my favorite person on this island. She works all day long, takes care of her children and cares for all of the volunteers. She made meals for us, organized girls’ nights out for ice cream, and sat with us at the dinner table for hours, where we shared stories and talked about our families and traditions.

Traveling in Belize

Sophie with her host family

For the first few days, I got picked up and traveled to work in a golf cart, but then I got my bike. At first, the other volunteers in my home would cycle out of the neighborhood with me so I could learn the way. There are no street signs or names, so I began to memories the turns I’d need to take, such as right at the plant store and left at the big blue house. For my first ride home on my own, I wrote down all of the turns on my hand. Despite my confidence, I took one wrong turn that continued to bring me back to the entrance of the neighborhood over and over again.

Since almost everyone on the island knows each other, I found a store in the neighborhood and asked the owner if they knew anyone from Projects Abroad. It turned out I had got lost in the right spot, as right next door to the store was my coordinator's home. I jumped off my bike and, as I looked to see if anyone was home, I saw her face in a little window, shouted her name and explained that I was lost. She gave me directions to get home, but it turns out we had that entire conversation while she was in the shower and I was labeled by her husband as the “volunteer who talked to her in the shower.” While that is mostly just an embarrassing story, it shows how friendly everyone on the island is and that if you’re lost, you will never truly be lost here.

My Public Health placement

Sophie working at a community garden

The Public Health placement is an exciting project that is always changing, depending on the needs within the community and new ideas emerging from the volunteers. While I was there, we were mainly focused on addressing diabetes and hypertension. At our mobile clinics, we tested many people and many of them had high or low blood pressure or blood sugar levels. Typically, these problems are the result of not leading healthy lifestyles. A lack of time, money or knowledge about nutrition all contribute to this problem. However, telling a patient that they need to eat more vegetables and drink more water is easier said than done. Many people cannot afford vegetables on the island, despite having jobs.

Volunteers gardening at their Public Health placement

After being involved in several mobile clinics and observing the issues first hand, one of the volunteers I was at the placement with created a proposal for a community garden at the school in my host family’s neighborhood. My last two weeks at the placement were filled with planning and executing this community garden, which will provide vegetables to the children and the families of the community. The garden will be set up in such a way that there will be minimal maintenance and cost to the community. Many of us take for granted that we can just go to the grocery store and buy vegetables or we complain about having to eat our vegetables. I saw first-hand that there are people who are hardworking, but don’t have access or the means to get vegetables. This lack of vegetables has a serious impact on people’s health and this programmer made me keenly aware of this.

My free time

Volunteers in Belize

My weekends were filled with exciting trips and some lazy beach days. During one weekend, I went snorkeling and saw some of the beautiful marine life. One of the highlights was shark ray alley. This is a beautiful section of the water where our tour guide threw sardines into the water and we got to watch the sharks eat them. We even held a GoPro in the water while they were eating and one of the sharks tried to eat the camera!

During another weekend, we went zip-lining in Belize City. It was so much fun and the views were amazing. Before zip-lining, we stopped at the zoo in Belize City. This zoo only has animals local to Belize, and the national animal, a Tapir, peed on me while I was there. It was quite an experience to say the least. If we weren’t going on a tour, we would just hang out on the beautiful beaches in San Pedro or go to Palapa Bar.

My overall experience

Everything I saw and experienced here in Belize will contribute to how I lead my life in the future. Having an understanding of the community here and being fully immersed in it has taught me so much. All of my experiences at the placement have had a huge impact on me as a person, from walking through the streets of one of the neighborhoods and learning how they bury rubbish, because there are no other places to dispose of it, to having tough conversations with people about diabetes and hypertension or just being a part of creating the community garden that I know will help serve the community in many positive ways.

After my first two weeks, when I biked through town people waved to me because I was already a familiar face. The kindness of the people on this island is what holds the community together and it has made my experience here even more special. This trip has helped me truly visualize the need for help in the world and I want to continue to provide much-needed help in the future.

Sophie Handloff

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