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Discovering true joy in an impoverished Belize village

Marissa Haynes, associate director of student engagement, helping in building infrastructure.
Caldwell University Student playing with the school kids of Belize Village.
Belize Village student trying to see their pictures on the camera.
Caldwell University student playing with the kids from the Belize village.
The Lyndhurst, New Jersey, resident and six other Caldwell students on the annual volunteerism trip to the Central American country
Caldwell Student photographer showing photos to the school kids.
Caldwell University students on the annual volunteerism trip to the Central American country.
Marissa Haynes, associate director of student engagement helping in building the infrastructure.
Caldwell University student on the annual volunteerism trip to the Central American country

For senior Daniela Sirio, the most important thing about her recent mission trip to Belize is what she and the other students do with the experience now that they are back home. “In trying to talk to friends and family about it, I try to pick out specific pictures,” ones that tell the stories of the local people, the children, and the lifestyle in the impoverished communities where people have little materially but are rich in joy.

The Lyndhurst, New Jersey, resident and six other students, along with their chaperones, spent Jan. 7-15 on the annual volunteerism trip to the Central American country. They rebuilt a playground, painted a fence and played with the children in the village of Crique Sacro. “It made me appreciate more of what I have, the simple things, like family,” said Amber Raines, a sophomore from Millville, New Jersey.

When the Caldwell team finished the work on the playground, it was a gift to see the exuberance on the children’s faces as they whisked down the slide. “It was as if there was no greater joy in their lives at that moment,” said Colleen O’Brien, director of campus ministry at Caldwell, who led the group.

The members of the Caldwell group stayed at a guesthouse in Punta Gorda associated with the Jesuit-run St. Peter Claver parish, and each day they drove along bumpy dirt roads for two hours to get to their work locations. Many of the people they served in the village had never left their community. “They were very appreciative of the work we did and showed us a lot of kindness and compassion,” said Raines. Seeing the poverty and their way of life was “culture shock” for her. “People don’t understand until they are there.”

In the evenings the Caldwell group ate meals together and shared experiences. The students were mostly off the technology grid, “constantly talking to each other,” said Sirio. O’Brien led them in nightly reflections, something she had done on campus in the weeks prior to the trip. “It helped how Colleen led us through the whole experience,” said Sirio. She particularly liked the project O’Brien assigned of sending affirmation letters to their travel companions.

At the end of the week they were treated to a festive home-cooked meal made by the local parents.

They also made side trips, visiting  the Guatemala border, a national park and Mayan ruins and taking a boat to the cayes off the coast of Punta Gorda. Adding to the excitement was the “nail-biting” tsunami warning they received one night, said O’Brien. “We had to evacuate for a bit; thankfully it was just a warning.”

The other chaperones were Sister Marge Jaros, O.P.; Marissa Haynes, associate director of student engagement, and Marisa Juliano, a graduate student who attended for the second year in a row. The other undergraduates who attended were Kristal Cannici, Eva Kenfack, Shelagh Kerrisk, Theoniki Makras and Madison Perry.

The mission trip to Belize was started by Caldwell President Nancy Blattner and her husband, Tim. Dr. Blattner knew Jesuit Father Dick Perl who was stationed at St. Peter Claver in Punta Gorda, from her days at Fontbonne University where she and Tim ran a book drive for children in Belize. Through the help of a shipping company, they were able to have 30,000 books sent for distribution throughout 30 villages in Punta Gorda.  When she began her role as president of Caldwell, Blattner was determined to start a service trip to Belize, and she did. The first year of the mission trip, the Blattners traveled with the students and spent a week building a church; they reaped beautiful benefits including being able to attend Mass in that church at the end of the week.

Over the last several years the Caldwell University community has built relationships with the people in Belize with students often expressing how they want to go back for another service trip and how they feel blessed to be actively living out the Catholic Dominican pillar of service.