By Sister Kerry Rowland with Carlette Gentle, SCN, and Beverly Hoffman, SCN.
Where is Belize? everybody asks. I didn’t know either. It’s below Mexico with Guatemala on the left and the Caribbean Sea on the right. About half the size of Nova Scotia, it’s a tiny gem of a country. There are two seasons: a hot and dry season, and a wet and hurricane season. There are several cultures, languages, and religious groups. One of these is the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who arrived in 1975. They’ve recently very graciously accepted a Sister of Charity – Halifax at their main house: that is the SCN Center, Belize City, Belize, present home of Bev, Carlette, Miriam, and Kerry.
Sister. Bev Hoffman, SCN, is an American, a physiotherapist who has lived here for almost 20 years. She ministers at The Inspiration Center (TIC) serving children with diverse abilities and their families. When the pandemic lockdown hit, all in-person therapy services ended, as well as much of the funding. As the shutdown extended, Bev reached through the shock we all felt and learned about new technology and new ways of delivering therapy via internet platforms. She made global connections with service providers. Now, two universities in the United States link occupational and speech therapy students and professors with TIC field officers, staff and families in need of telehealth services. Families in rural villages find ways to access a phone, computer, or tablet in a location with internet for services. The online Student Elective Program has brought services to Belize virtually. There are hopes for in-person services in the future, when safely possible. Amazing!
Recently returned from finishing her Social Work degree in the United States is Kriol- Belizean Sister Carlette Gentle, SCN. Carlette ministers through “Living Independently in Full Existence”(LIFE), an NGO she started to assist the elderly poor. LIFE assists with service, medical appointment drives, food, minor house repair, support groups, and links to clinics. Carlette purchases and packs, with her staff and family, 60 monthly hampers of basics: flour, rice, beans and more. The pandemic has hit hard. Carlette and her mother still prepare 50 plates of food for home delivery to seniors unable now to meet. Her small staff makes care cards to deliver with the food.
Also living here is Miriam J., a youthful, spiritual, and very gracious presence among us. Miriam, a Mayan-Belizean, is the diocesan youth coordinator. She lives in the downstairs of this SCN Centre/Initial Formation house. With no volunteers right now to fill the dormitory and other spaces, she rents the lower unit, quarantining with lamentable frequency because of necessary travels around the country and to her family. Gathering and bringing forward the needs of youth, especially during the pandemic in Belize, she is making a faith-filled difference!
As for me, Canadian Kerry, I’m a teacher. I’ve lived and taught in many places, and now in Belize. I knew it would be a different experience. As it turned out, however, the pandemic arrived and suddenly life was different for everybody! And so it was the same for all: shutdowns, wondering how to serve, and the struggle around maintaining physical distancing. And those same new things emerged: I began meeting, teaching ESL and reading with the help of technology, including Whatsapp and Zoom. When school gradually reopened, I watched the principal checking students with no-touch thermometers that were supplied by our Sisters. Assessments were done with paper our Sisters provided. Some older children tested better than expected in reading, whilst many younger ones fell well below expected levels. Students speak three or four languages here despite not having been able to pick up lesson packets and read English for a year! Despite the pandemic hardships, there’s more running water and soap available in school, ere’s greater internet access and class sizes are smaller. There’s less focus on getting through all curriculum and more emphasis on social-emotional support. In our school, where about fifty percent of the students have indicators of PTSD, perhaps this actually could be a good recalibration.
What’s happening next? A frequent response is, “God knows!” As Sisters of Charity, we may take that as consolation rather than crisis statement. We continue to live centred in the One. In this country or another, COVID-19 or no COVID-19, we seek to love and to serve, according to the needs of the time.