Christina Chabali in Belize

"The Beauty of Belize" by Christina Chabali

They followed the van all the way to the gate as we drove slowly on the bumpy, unpaved road. It was too difficult to look back as by this point, we didn’t want their happy, smiling faces to see tears streaming down ours. The van was silent as we all looked out the windows not wanting to make eye contact, not wanting to accept the fact that we were actually headed for the airport. We all had so many thoughts running through our heads and I knew there was so much we all wanted to say, but how could we put this last week into words that would justify the laughter, love and sadness that so touched us? As part of a group of twelve UD students, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel thousands of miles south down to Ladyville, Belize. Although I knew going in I would be impacted and likely learn and grow a lot, I never imagined the bond we would form with the twenty-three lovable children and furthermore, the lasting interest and passion we would take home.

Upon arriving at Liberty Children’s Home, I first noticed the eagerness and happiness with which we were greeted. Delfena Mitchell, the Director, welcomed us with a bright smile as she drove us to Liberty. During our drive, instantly one of the most notable and impacting aspects was the condition of the houses we passed. Dilapidated and consisting of just one room, we were able to immediately get insight into the life of many Belizeans. After a ten-minute drive, with the sun shining, we arrived at Liberty as several giggling and smiling children took a break from hopscotch, jump rope and swinging to welcome us. Before we could even start wheeling our suitcases to our building, the children ran over to us and grabbed our luggage, racing as fast as they could. I was taken aback by how little I imagined these children had, yet the amount of love and help they were willing to provide.

After settling in, Delfena gave us a brief orientation. While she did not tell us the specific problems many of the children faced, Delfena was upfront in telling us that the majority of the children had been physically or sexually abused. Many of them had lost one or both of their parents, and the government had intervened due to harmful living conditions. It turns out Liberty was aptly named, because Delfena told us the home’s philosophy is based upon giving children the freedom to be themselves by also freeing them from the adversity they have faced in their very young lives.

Our first day at Liberty most of us were in awe as we witnessed the happiness and love these children exuded. We could not really believe how open and comfortable the children became with us, as they would come up, grab our hands and call us, “Miss Christina, Miss Olivia, will you sit by me at supper?” I had to remind myself that we had only met them hours before.

Our first couple of meals that day consisted of rice and beans and a roll. This was another part of the trip that struck me throughout the week. Breakfast was typically a roll or waffle and beans. Lunch was the biggest meal of the day, typically a couple of pieces of chicken, rice and beans and a roll. Dinner was more like a snack, not much more than a roll or two and maybe some beans. Although these meals were not a lot, we all grew accustomed to them instantly. They were nourishing. It was so touching to see that the kids seemed perfectly content with the food they received, rarely asking for more and even sharing with their siblings and friends. There was one instance in particular when everyone received a piece of sausage with dinner. One of the boys, Michael, had not sat down yet and his plate was skipped over. When he came back, David who was quite a bit younger, came over and gave Michael part of his sausage without even giving it much of a thought. David’s generosity made me question whether this would happen in a more privileged society. In the U.S. for example, the food portions are so big and just by seeing the meals, I really began to think about the terms, “need” and “want.” The small meals we received were all we truly needed. It seems as though the large portions of food we find in the U.S. are far more than we actually “need.” Is this greed? If only there was more of a continuous conscious thought about how our actions affect those less privileged, resources like food and water, which are sometimes scarce, would be much more plentiful.

There was another instance where I am not sure I have ever seen God’s presence so clearly. We were all standing around after school one day as one of the older boys, Sam, rode around on his bike. The children frequently picked fruit off of the trees to eat. They all loved these Chinese plums. Sam was riding around on his bike making sure everyone got a piece of fruit. The youngest girl Sarah went up to Sam and asked him for a plum. He looked at her and told her he’d be right back. Sure enough, a couple minutes later, Sam came back to find Sarah. He gave her the plum as he looked up at a few of us and sweetly smiled saying, “She’s our baby. We all have to take care of her.” Sam and Sarah are not even siblings but through the way Sam spoke, it was clear how much these children protect one another.

There was a swing set nearby with Bible verses printed neatly. One of the verses read, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). Sam’s protective nature and good-heartedness shined through and I knew then that this verse was speaking directly to him. God has a plan for each of these children. It proved difficult and frustrating to keep this in mind as the children opened up to us throughout the week. I found myself feeling angry several times. Why was I so blessed to grow up living in such a loving, safe environment with parents who would do anything for me while some of these children do not even know what it’s like to have a family? These children could not help the fact that they were born into impoverished or harmful conditions. This is something I’m not quite sure I will ever make sense of as I saw how much promise each of these children possessed. Sam, for example, was really a phenomenal basketball player. He didn’t understand the concept of dribbling though and I kept thinking, had he been born somewhere else, would he have the chance to play on a college level team? However, picturing them living in the U.S. was also difficult. Their culture is so much a part of them and trying to envision them living in a more materialistic culture also made me sad. They are so happy with the simple life they live. They don’t know any different.

Our days at Liberty always started early, typically at six a.m. Although it sounds early, we awoke with such joy at hearing the children singing outside our window as they did their chores before school each morning. They would always race over to hug us and beg us to sit at their table for each meal. Then, we walked, holding their hands to the bus stop. They would recount stories of their “favorite friends” and would talk about their favorite subject. While the kids were at school, Liberty became much quieter without the happy, laughing voices. Throughout the week, we weeded, cleaned up the premises and our biggest task we completed, one the boys were so proud of, was repainting their dorm. The white walls had been damaged and when the boys got home from school, they were so happy to see the blue and green paint. As we worked in the dorms, we also noticed how small their beds were. Many of the boys were tall and growing and it was hard to believe they are really able to fit onto these small cots.

Throughout the week, we really got to know the children quite well, making jokes with them. They taught us their dance moves but we did not have much success, as most of us lacked coordination. However, there were parts of the week when many of us heard stories that I am confident we will never forget. As Delfena had told us, many of the children had been abused in some manner prior to coming to live at Liberty. In fact, Belize has the highest rate of child abuse in the Caribbean and 39% of children live below the poverty line (Liberty Foundation).  In addition, many of the children have AIDS or are at the very least HIV positive and some have special needs. One of the girls, twelve-year-old Mary, has cerebral palsy. Restricted to a wheelchair, Mary really has no movement and attends the preschool on campus for stimulation. At least two or three of the children are HIV positive. One of the boys, ten-year-old Matthew, has been through an incredible amount of obstacles in his short life. Not only is he HIV positive, he lost both of his parents and wears glasses due to a beating he received from his stepmom that tore his retina. Hearing this alone was enough to make me want to adopt Matthew. Without knowing this about Matthew, it would be difficult to ever guess that he has been through so much. We all agreed after meeting the kids, Matthew stood out as the most loving. However, one night Matthew biked around angrily and I knew something wasn’t right. He asked me to help him with his math homework because he was so frustrated by it. We sat there for a while as I tried without much success to get Matthew to focus on his homework. He only kept telling me how much he hated it though and how he just couldn’t do it. I understood that; I never excelled at math either. But, I knew his frustration was coming from a much deeper place. All of a sudden he burst into tears and buried his head on my shoulder as he said, “I want to go far, far away from here. I want to be with my mom and dad. I want to be underground with them.” Even as I write these words today, I can still so vividly remember the shock, hurt and sadness I felt as Matthew sobbed. It is hard to put into words the impact Matthew’s words had and still have on me. There has never been a time in my life where I have felt more appreciative of my family.

As the week came to an end and we continued to reflect on the way these twenty-three children changed us, I had another powerful conversation with four-year-old Sarah. I was swinging her one day after school, our normal routine, when a plane flew overhead. I asked her if she had been on a plane before and she nodded. She told me she had been on a plane when she went to Barbados last summer. I knew that she and her sisters had gone to stay with their aunt and uncle. I asked Sarah if she liked Barbados to which she replied, “No, they hit us with belts like my mom and dad do.” Sarah’s words cut right through to my heart. Only four years old and she already knows what it is like to be abused. Not only Sarah, but so many of these children are scarred as a result of all they’ve seen. One of the girls, Ashley, came around to each of us and told us to never get married because, “husbands beat their wives.” These were just some of the stories we heard in one week. I can only imagine how much more these children have been through. They are my heroes and have inspired me to always think positively. I don’t ever feel justified complaining about things like homework and other minor issues. These kids have been through an incredible amount yet they are all still so positive. They don’t tell you their stories so you will feel sympathy. They just need someone to listen to them, to understand why they are the way they are or feel the emotions they do.

Leaving Belize was a very emotionally taxing day. Through the week we were there, yes we painted the rooms and cleaned but most importantly, we loved the children with all we could. Although we all struggled when we left, feeling as though their impact on us was far greater than the impact we had on them, the week we were there to love and support them was one less week of their lives they had to go without that love. We wanted so badly to take them all home with us or at least find families that could love and support them. Five of the children are in the adoption process and will get to go home to their loving parents in June. Meeting this couple was so humbling and inspiring. When we asked them about the situation they said, “We’ve already adopted six children internationally so we were in the system. We have the resources. If we don’t do this, who will?” I just wish there were more people with this perspective. Then all of these children could have parents like David and Virginia. However, what was so comforting was that at Liberty these children are being well cared for. They are showered with love from Delfena, their caregivers and the new volunteers they meet each week. Liberty is without a doubt, living out the mission of not only giving these children shelter and food, but also providing them with education, support and freedom.

I am still in disbelief at the fact that I will be returning to Belize this summer! The minute we stepped on the plane from Belize to Dallas, I knew I had to come back. These kids and Delfena had too much of an impact on me for me to leave and not keep them in heart. Since coming back to the U.S., our group has continued to meet frequently and we have all become very close as a result of everything we experienced. We are selling blue wristbands that say “Little bits of good.” This comes from Desmond Tutu’s powerful words, “Do your little bits of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Although we may not have “changed lives” or “saved the world,” we had the desire to step into another culture and understand life at Liberty, an experience for which we will forever be grateful. Creating these wristbands is our way of doing our best to live out what we learned at Liberty. Many of these children have been through hell and back but they still smile, they still love and they still hope. We all have faith that God will continue to provide for these children. Traveling to Belize has thus far been the most emotionally challenging, happiest and most life-giving experience. I have never felt so alive and been able to reflect upon my own life in such a profound manner. As Gandhi proclaimed, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Taking a leap of faith and immersing myself in a culture so different from all I’ve ever known has shown me that God truly connects and loves us all!