Social Work Students in Belize: San Mateo Empowerment Project

Article from the San Pedro Sun, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

A resounding applause emanated from the meeting place in San Mateo, when students of the University of Mississippi promised to assist residents in that subdivision in the construction of a much needed road. Currently the San Mateo Subdivision is interconnected by a myriad of London Bridges that stretch from the many homes to the entrance of the residential area. Those who have never visited San Mateo before, remain in awe at the expanse of makeshift bridges which comprise part of the residents’ day to day life. For years, they have clamored for assistance from government to no avail, explained the residents during the meeting which was held on Saturday, January 16th.

As part of their Education, Health and Child Welfare class students of the University of Mississippi visited the San Mateo area talking to the many residents and finding out what they thought were their biggest needs. According to Kim Shackelford, an associate professor of Social Work, the students fully embraced their assignment and at the end were determined to make the lives of San Mateo residents better. Through their many house to house visits the four biggest challenges encountered by residents were lack of 1) road, 2) electricity, 3) sewage and 4) lower cost of water.

After speaking to parents, children, and residents in the area, the students twice held a public meeting. During the meetings, light was shed onto the many concerns that the residents faced. It was stated that previous conversations with the Belize Electricity Limited and Belize Water Services Limited revealed that both utility companies would extend their individual services to the area once a road is constructed. It was therefore agreed by everyone present that first and foremost the road situation needed to be addressed.

During the last meeting held this past weekend, Shackelford and her students explained to the residents that they would all need to work together in making the road a reality.

We will go back to Mississippi and hold fundraisers. We will go back and meet with our school and other organizations that can help. We will take care of raising the money needed to build the road, she stated. The monies that students raise will be sent to Ambergris Caye for the purchase of items such as gravel, hard core and sand which will be needed to construct the road. The money will be sent to residents of San Mateo themselves and not to the San Pedro Town Council, she said.

For their part, San Mateo residents banded together and formed four committees between them. The first committee will be responsible in assessing and planning the way the road will be constructed. They will work in collaboration with government officials to find out how wide and what depth the road will have. Their duties will also include assessing the cost per cubic foot of the road. Back in Mississippi, the students will sell each cubic foot to donors who are willing to help Ambergris Caye. The second committee will be in charge of the finances. Once fundraisers are held, students will send the monies to San Mateo residents and the finance committee will ensure accountability in all monies received and spent. A local fundraising committee was also formed and will be headed by Miss Shelly who said, While you [the students] are raising money in the states, we can be raising some money to buy the tools we will need here. We will use the fundraising money to buy the shovels, and wheel barrows for the work ahead. The last committee formed was a public relations committee who will work in disseminating valuable information and keeping all residents in the area informed about the work being carried out.

Area Representative for Belize Rural South Manuel Heredia Jr. was present during the meeting and stated, We appreciate the initiative from our friends abroad. On behalf of the local government we extend our assistance to the initiative as well. We have to share, to show our part of the responsibility, stated Honorable Heredia. He went on to explain that a member of the World Bank had approached him and offered financial assistance in the form of a loan for the construction of the road. This, he said, would take a bit of time to materialize.

Residents, however, opted to continue with the work commenced by the University students stating, We ask that Honorable Heredia kindly donate some boards to fix the existing “London Bridges” that are in a terrible state. We will continue working with the students and get the road plans ahead. If the government comes forward and decides to help we will take the assistance but we have already waited 12 years for a road to be built.

Once materials have been purchased, students, volunteers and the residents of San Mateo will work together and build the road themselves. They only ask assistance from the San Pedro Town Council in allowing them the privilege of transporting the products across the Boca del Rio Bridge (transportation across the bridge is limited to golf carts, ATVs and small vehicles).

From 2009