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Raising the Roof on the Centre of Hope

 At one time or another, most people dream about getting away from the cold Canadian weather to an idyllic vacation in the warm sunny tropics.  So, it was when my husband and I, in 1995, with visions of long sandy beaches, backpacking to a jungle retreat, and plans to discover the secrets of the ancient Mayan set off for Belize.

Belize (formerly the British Colony known as British Honduras,) is a small Central American country south of Mexico and is nestled just to the east of Guatemala.  The Mosquito Coast (as it has been called) is dotted with Cayes and is protected by the second largest barrier reef in the world.

The history of Belize is fascinating.  The earliest foreigners came to islands as early as 1600. Both Spain and England laid claim to the colony.  With few inhabitants, treacherous swampy backwaters, and the dangerous offshore reef, Belize was an ideal hideout for pirates and buccaneers. There were many shipwrecks off the barrier reef, some of which remain to this day.  Spain finally signed a treaty with England, in order to suppress the piracy and to protect the lumber interests.  By 1700, lumber was a booming industry, and the huge mahogany logs were shipped to Europe to be used in the ship- building industry. Soon slaves were traded, resulting in a population that consisted of 75 % black slaves and a smaller white elite who lived in relative comfort in their homes in Belize City.

Spain relinquished its control of Mexico and Guatemala in 1821, but Britain’s interest in Belize grew throughout the 1800s.  In 1859, Britain signed a treaty with Guatemala, in which the present-day boundaries of Belize ?, in return for Britain financing of a road from Guatemala’s capital to Belize City.  This promise was never carried out, and is one of the reasons Guatemala never formerly ratified the 1859 agreement.  In 1991 the Guatemalan president settled the long running dispute, although the British continued to keep about two thousand soldiers in the country, as a deterrent to would be invaders.  Mexico renounced any claims on Belize in 1897.  The slave trade was abolished in 1839; English and Scottish settlers were intermarrying with freed black slaves, to form the black Creole majority that dominates the population of Belize.

Throughout the next century Belize went through profound cultural changes.  Immigrants arrived from China, Lebanon, the West Indies, as well as refugees from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala and to a lesser degree El Salvador.  By the 1930’s conditions in Belize, were deteriorating due to a poor economy, low wages, and high unemployment.  This mixed with unrest from neighbouring Guatemala, started the drive for an independent country.  On September 21, 1981 Belize became and independent nation.

Today, compared to other Central American countries, Belize enjoys relative prosperity. However, most food, manufactured goods, and consumer products are imported resulting in a huge trade deficit.  Despite, rather good education, there is high unemployment. Now more than ever there are increasing numbers of Guatemalans, Honduran, El Salvadorian, and Mexican immigrants, many of who are illegal.  Much of the Belize foreign exchange is derived from citizens who have emigrated from Belize to more developed countries.  An estimated 1/3 of Belize Citizens live outside the country.

For travelers today, Belize is an eco-tourism haven.  Many very upscale jungles lodges offer comfort and rustic adventure, all within a close distance.  Mayan guides are ready to take groups up the peaks of Victoria Mountain, camp in the Cockscomb Basin, or kayak down the rushing current of the Mopan River where one hundred years ago, great mahogany logs were being floated down stream towards Belize City.  Quite often the tourist is protected from seeing the homeless, the pain on the streets, the long lineups at the day clinics of the government hospital.

Sitting in the Market Place in San Ignacio, we could almost feel the history, and certainly could hear the pride in the voices of the local people.  They were proud to be free, we were told over and over.  This is Belize!  While enjoying panades we asked about the health care, how people managed, what was being done about the homeless, the poor and the elderly?  We were told about “The Centre.”  The “Old Folks Home” It was known as the “Poor House.”  They also told us about the local hospital.  The Government hospital –but if you were really ill, or you were a tourist, you went to the Private Seventh Day Adventist Hospital.  We were told about hardship, daily struggles, not enough food, lack of medical supplies, and old broken down army cots.  But still, it was better than sleeping on the street.

We returned from our vacation with the feeling that something was missing.  The experience was like a fluffy dessert, refreshing, pleasing, but not entirely satisfying.  My return to my job as a nurse in Long Term Care seemed to be different somehow.  We seemed to have so much.  The residents were so well fed; in fact we would throw out more in one meal than what the resident’s in the Octavia Waight Centre had to eat for an entire day.  No one was in pain because of lack of medication.  Everyone had a warm and comfortable bed.

 

After several years, Bob (my husband) and I determined to stop putting the thought of Belize out of our minds.  It seemed to us that if we tried hard enough somehow we could make a difference.  And so…. “Beds for Belize” was born.

 

Our first trip was so innocent.  Like having your first-born child it was the first time for everything. We were not really prepared, and had not yet experienced the impact of four thousand miles on the human body.  We prepared our motor home, for the trip and packed a pull behind trailer full of beds, diapers and medical supplies.  The roads were so rough that the trailer popped off the hitch many times.  To say that we got there safely was an overstatement, but we did get there.  One of the very large boxes we brought with us contained colostomy bags.

 

Mr. Gabriel Murillo is a 76-year-old thin frail Honduran born refugee.  One year previous to our visit, he was living on the streets of St Ignacio.  He was covered with filth and flies; the odor emanating from him was so bad that people would cross the street to avoid him.  He was taken to the center, for help.  They discovered that they odor was coming from a colostomy.  He was covered in feces.  They cleaned him up and gave him clean clothes and food.  All they had to put over his colostomy was bread bags attached with surgical tape.  Later that week, Mr. Murillo shook my hand, smiled and proudly showed me his new colostomy bag, which he had secured around his waist with a piece of kitchen string.

That first contact and experience with the staff and residents of Octavia Waight Centre and this beautiful country seemed to burn into our heart and soul. We began to plan, and started to raise money, and supplies for our next trip.  Since that time 4 more trips have been made and over one hundred thousand dollars worth of aid has been taken to this center.

We have travelled to Belize by motor home and trailer, two large cube vans, and two school buses packed with donated wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, geriatric chairs, hospital beds, mattresses, wound care supplies, medications, sheets, blankets, pillows, clothing, towels, blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, thermometers, glucose monitoring devices, creams lotions, soaps and shampoos, but most importantly diapers.  The community of Huntsville has been very generous.

 A very special group of women in Huntsville call themselves “Knitters for Global Warmth” Margaret McCall the founder of this group, has arranged the donation of lap blankets, shawls, slippers and hats, enough for everyone for two years in a row. It was a special Christmas like moment when the goods were passed out one by one. Each resident chose the colour they liked best. Joy as warm as the tropic sun could be felt, by everyone that day. These residents had just endured an outbreak of influenza. Thirteen out of 24 residents had died. The nighttime temperature had dropped to 50 degrees, and they did not have enough sweaters or blankets to stay warm, during the night.

Although the goal of the project is to collect and deliver in person, goods and supplies, it is becoming harder and harder to get across borders and to clear customs. More  regulation is coming from the Mexican government and many items previously shipped are considered illegal to carry. This includes clothes and diapers. This indeed is a very difficult problem. Incontinent products are what they need most, and we usually brought enough to last an entire year.

 

Dedicated volunteers have assisted with the driving and others have flown in to be at the center to help unload and unpack supplies when they arrived.  While volunteers were waiting for the driving crew to clear customs, many routine tasks for staff were made lighter by having more eager hands willing to do work.  Some examples are: Jim Webb spent a week building cupboards for the kitchen.   Jon Armstrong (a mechanic by trade) was very happy to work with Jack the handyman fixing the center’s broken down vehicles.  Len Ross and Len Holloway cheerfully erected a fence surrounding the compound, despite the fierce biting of red fire ants.

 Staff were eager to learn and I was pleased to teach simple nursing skills; how to take blood pressures, the importance of hand washing, skin and wound care, education about medication, diabetes, and dementia, how to safely transfer and move patients, nutrition and hydration.  They reviewed basic nursing texts with an avid appetite and watched videos on the VCR that we brought with us.  With the help of volunteers at the center medical care that had not been available previously was arranged and carries on to this day.

 What once was considered the poor house for the under privileged has become a Centre of Hope.

Slowly over time, the Octavia Waight Centre has grown.  While continuing to struggle to meet daily needs, they are reaching out to their community.  A paralyzed child confined to bed is now able to attend school because of a wheelchair.  A woman is able to get to the bathroom because of a walker.  Residents of the town are dropping into the center to use the newly refurbished “physio room” equipped with parallel bars and pulley’s.  In a gesture of thanks they bring with them a chicken, a loaf of bread of a bag of oranges. School children drop into the center to entertain the seniors, or run an activity.

 The basic building, now eighteen years old is made with cement.  The original tin roof is full of holes and several years of rain has rotted out the rafters.  It is in danger of collapsing.  The paint in the rooms is peeling and the mold near the floorboards is rampant.

 “Raising the Roof” is the name of the next project for the Octavia Waight Centre.  We will need to raise $50,000, to accomplish our goal of replacing the roof.

 On Saturday October 23, 2004 one hundred and seventy tickets were sold for a gourmet potluck dinner, which took place at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Huntsville.

 This fabulous multi-course culinary experience was organized under the supervision of Raising the Roof, Culinary Director, Chef Brian Henry.  The kitchen crew served delicious warm fresh herb bread from the River Bend Restaurant, Barley risotto with Grilled vegetables, made at 3 Guys and a Stove. Chef Randy Spencer of Tall Trees Restaurant presented Asian Game Consume with Julienne of Root Vegetables.  Caribbean Mango Salad with Ice Shrimp and Crab came from Dino’s Family Place Restaurant. Chef B.G. Henry himself made Mole marinated Duck Breast with Dark Chocolate Drizzle.  A wonderful cioppino of New Zealand Mussels was the work of Raising the Roof, Culinary Team Captain Mark Anderson, along with Culinary Arts Students from George Brown College. Chef Cynthia Simpson of Nor’loch Lodge resort presented a mushroom composition with duck rillet. The meal ended with a succulent Double Layered Chocolate Mouse Ganache Genoise made by the Deerhurst Resort Pastry Shop.

 All of the food, supplies, and time were generously donated, with one hundred percent of the sales going towards the project. Culinary Team Captain Mark Anderson recruited students from George Brown College who acted independently from the college and were privately sponsored by Chef B. G. Henry and Burleigh Island Lodge.

 One of our volunteers, Mr. Ron Henry, has been the key person in organizing this fund raising event.  Not only did he work with his son to organize the gourmet dinner, but also he has organized the donation and building of the replica of the Centre.  On this replica there are sections of roof that can be bought for a donation of $100.00.  Each donor will receive a tax receipt and will have their name engraved on a plaque, which will hang in the Octavia Waight Centre.  For an extra special night of excellent culinary delight for this worthwhile cause, Chef Brian Henry will come to your home and prepare a gourmet meal for eight.  All it takes is a donation of $ 2,000 or more.

 Our volunteer team has a lot of work ahead of them: review blueprint plans, contact manufacturers to seek out possible donations of supplies, organize a construction team and co-ordinate the shipping, customs clearing and many other tasks too numerous to mention.

 Above all we continue to dream, and to review in our memory the faces of the thankful and unspoiled residents of this wonderful place called the Octavia Waight Centre.

Joanne Chipperfield RN CPMHN(C)

 

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