A Reason to Belize - Rider Volunteers Build Hope Overseas

In a week’s time, the Rider University volunteers were able to transform an open lot into a play area that includes swing sets, seesaws, a playhouse and tire tower, complete with shade.
Monday, July 7, 2008

Recently, on a balmy night in Belize, a group of Rider students and graduates stood at the base of the Mayan Ruins where more than 2,000 years earlier, peasant farmers and slaves had constructed temples, pyramids and palaces. The excursion to the ruins gave the group from Rider time to reflect, as they had just spent the day building a playground for school children in Belize.

“They were like, ‘We’re struggling to build a playground. How did the Mayans build this?’” said Heather Brisby, coordinator of Community Service at Rider.

While their work did not seem as majestic as the old ruins to them, it did have a great impact on a school in San Ignacio Town, Cayo. The group spent a week in Belize, from May 17 to May 24, constructing a hurricane-proof playground area for students at St. Andrew’s Anglican School.

“For more than 60 years, the school hasn’t had a playground,” Brisby explained. During lunch, the students would have to sit in a dirty, grassy area outside in the sun, she added. “A lot of children came from poverty.”

In a week’s time, the volunteers were able to transform the open lot into a play area that includes swing sets, seesaws, a playhouse and tire tower, complete with shade. In the process, the volunteers learned how to meld and mix cement.

In addition to constructing a brand new playground for the school, the volunteers spent time during the day as teacher assistants and tutored the students in English, math, and health and nutrition. The volunteers handed out 100 toothbrushes donated by Mercer Street Friends, as well as toothpaste and floss, donated by local dentists. In the afternoons, after school, the Rider volunteers spent time playing outside with the children. They had also donated recreational equipment, including Frisbees and jump-ropes.

When the week was over, the students from St. Andrew’s paid tribute to all the hard work by singing songs and giving homemade cards to the volunteers. The group’s efforts also made headlines, with a story about the service project appearing in a newspaper in Belize.

“The service trip allowed the volunteers to really learn to appreciate the lives that they have,” Brisby said. “The group walked away amazed at what they could do.”

The service project evolved from conversations with Peacework, a partner of the Corella and Bertram Bonner Foundation. The RCS/Bonner Leaders program at Rider University offers students a chance to affect change in the community by working with local partners to address hunger, homelessness, adult literacy and at-risk youth. Brisby said a lot of Bonner Leaders work with at-risk children in the Mercer County area, but there was a strong interest to give back on an international scale.

Uchenna Duru, a Rider Community Scholar/Bonner Leader who spent two years planning the service trip, said one of the goals of the Bonner program is to gain an international perspective. “It’s important to learn about other cultures,” Duru explained.

Though originally planned as a RCS/Bonner Leader event, the excursion was opened up to students campuswide. Brisby said the Bonner Leaders’ interaction with other community leaders will hopefully allow more collaboration on projects in the future. At night, the group was able to bond and explore the country. They spent their down time eating at restaurants, hiking and cave tubing.

The Bonner Leaders, who participated in the service project were: Nicole Addesso of Cape May, N.J., a junior Accounting major; Uchenna Duru of Maplewood, N.J., who recently graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Human Resource Management; Krista Fincke of Cranford, N.J., who recently graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education and Integrated Sciences and Math; Chelsea Kovacs of Bloomfield, N.J., a senior Elementary Education and Psychology major; Rob Liao of Columbus, N.J., a junior Finance and Global Business double major; Indya Murray of Hamilton, N.J., a senior Sociology major; Jessica O’Neill of North Bergen, junior Elementary Education Psychology major; Lindsey Peletier of Oceanside, N.Y., a junior Psychology major; and Ashley Richert of Vineland, N.J., a junior Elementary Education and Psychology major. Former Bonner Leader Lindsey Thomas of Blackwood, N.J., a 2007 graduate with a degree in Elementary Education and Psychology, also participated in the service project.

Two students outside of the Bonner program also participated. Emily Di Paulo of Pittsford, N.Y., a junior Elementary Education and Psychology major, is a member of Rider SERVES. Lena Ricioppi of Franklin Square, N.Y., a junior Management and Leadership and Human Resource Management double major, is a member of Circle K.