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Discovering gratitude, joy and a beautiful culture on Belize mission trip

Picture of a house in Belizee
Picture of Students making a traditional Belize dish
Group Picture of Caldwell University Volunteers in Belize
Picture of Children Dancing in Belize
Group Picture of Caldwell University Students in Belize with their host

 Caldwell, N.J., Jan. 28, 2020 – Karine Duarte loves it when people ask her about the brown ring she wears from her mission trip to Belize. “I want people to ask about it, to become aware,” she says, of the culture of the Mayan people, how they live with very few material resources and how they have a peace of mind and joy not readily experienced in first world countries.

Duarte, a junior, and nine other Caldwell University students and two chaperones spent Jan. 5-13 in the village of San Marcos repainting a school and murals, playing with the children and learning about the community. Ambar Coto, a sophomore, was with Duarte when they visited a family in the village that had lost two children. Once the students learned that one of the murals they were repainting was dedicated to those children, the project meant so much more. It was like the family was saying, “This means something to us. Can you bring it back to life?” said Coto, of Woodbridge, New Jersey.

The Caldwell group enjoyed playing soccer with the children. Duarte, a nursing student who played soccer in high school in Newark, was excited when she received letters from the children; “… the two boys I played soccer with wrote to me specifically, considering we share [the] commonality with the sport, and it was quite emotional to have them show their gratitude by writing us letters.”

The trip was “therapeutic,” said Duarte, who was happy to be away from technology and was rarely on her phone.

The Caldwell group stayed in Punta Gorda at the Saint Peter Claver parish guesthouse, and members gathered every night to reflect on the day’s happenings. It was a chance to “grapple with the challenges of poverty in our world and how we are called to help and serve the common good,” said Colleen O’Brien, the director of Campus Ministry for Caldwell and the main chaperone. They also bonded. “As soon we got off the plane, everyone wanted to listen to each other,” said Coto, a nursing student.

A highlight came at the end of the workweek when the group met with the people of San Marcos for a meal prepared by the village women. It consisted of a traditional Mayan dish, caldo and corn tortillas; there was traditional Mayan music and dancing. “We were honored to be welcomed into this community like family,” said O’Brien.

During the mission trip members of the group had a chance to experience “the culture and gifts that Belize has to offer,” said O’Brien. They visited a Mayan ruin site,  swam in caves and drank coconut water straight from the source.

Since coming home, Coto and Duarte feel more gratitude in their daily lives. “I haven’t stopped smiling,” said Coto. She said family members expected to hear “vacation stories” but instead they heard about a very different experience, which has inspired them to reach out and do more. Coto’s older sisters, who have children, have given her books to send to Belize. The Caldwell group also plans to send clothes, said Duarte.

The experience made the nursing students realize there is a whole world out there where they might provide their skills as traveling nurses someday. They want others to venture out too. “Everyone has to do it,” whether through their school,  church or another group, said Coto. “Go somewhere else, disconnect and just do it.”