God’s grace is worldwide

By Kathie Stamps | COMMON THREAD

Would you happily live in a wobbly structure with dirt floors and a tarp for walls? Hundreds of people outside of Belize City do, and they’re actually quite content. “They are such people of faith,” said Billie Turner, RN, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Saint Joseph Martin. “They are very thankful for what they have, and are very happy.”

Flora Washburn, manager of mission services at Saint Joseph Berea, agreed. “We tend to think of third-world countries as being disadvantaged, which economically they are,” she said, “but they have so many cultural, spiritual and family situations in place that are extremely strong and resilient.”

Turner and Washburn were two of a dozen Americans who traveled to Belize on Valentine’s Day 2011 for a weeklong mission trip in the small village of Las Flores, a suburb of the capital city of Belmopan in Belize. The projects for the trip were organized through the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCN), which has a strong presence in Belize City.

“This was my first time on a mission trip,” Turner said. “I want to do it again!” The mission team was charged with the task of working on home repairs for three different families in Las Flores. With the help of some of the villagers, they laid a concrete floor in one home for a mother and her six children, where sand, cement and water were mixed on the ground itself because there were no cement mixers available. They added an extra room to another structure by putting up plywood walls and topping them with an aluminum roof. Their third project was to start a house from scratch, which included building a frame so concrete could be poured at a later date.

“We were quite taken aback by the situation at the first home we went to,” Turner said. But as the week progressed, she knew she would be encouraging co-workers and family members to think about doing something similar.

“It is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” she said. “It gives you a different picture of the world. Our neighbors are not just the people next door; we have solidarity with people all over the world.”

In the fall of 2010, Sister Liz Wendeln, SCN, and KentuckyOne Health board member, challenged the Saint Joseph Leadership Development Institute to become involved with international missions “to expand our vision and see what goes on beyond ourselves,” Washburn recalled.

SCN worked with local village leaders in Las Flores to determine the home repair projects before the Americans arrived.

“We go there with great intentions of helping them, but we are the ones who end up becoming richer from it,” Washburn said. “The difficult part is when you see the needs of someone else. Coming from the American culture, we want to try to ‘fix’ it,” she said. Turner said, “Until you see those situations
and how people are living, you don’t realize how much we take for granted.”

Early in the week, when members of their group found out that kids were sleeping on a dirt floor – and yes, it all turned to mud when it rained – their first thought was to buy bunk beds for them. “A few of us went out for a couple of hours one morning looking for bunk beds!” Washburn said. As it turned out, the children liked sleeping in hammocks. What the family really needed and wanted was linoleum for the floor. “We bought a piece of linoleum and you would have thought it was Christmas,” Washburn said. “They were so excited to no longer be sleeping on a dirt floor or walking in mud in the bedroom.”

She was immediately reminded of a piece of advice from Diane Jones at Catholic Health Initiatives: “Build relationships. Find out how you can help – what they want, not what you think they need.”
“These people were so appreciative and thankful for what we did,” Turner said. “I left there feeling like they did more for me than I did for them.”

Known as British Honduras until 1973, Belize is about half the size of Kentucky (the Commonwealth has 4 million more people, though). It is the northernmost country of Central America. Although the official language is English, many of the people in Las Flores speak Spanish, as they are refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries.

Washburn and Turner returned to Belize in January 2012 with Sister Susan Gatz, SCN, to assess how the legacy Saint Joseph Health System organization could be involved in Las Flores. Their intent was to see if establishing a not-for-profit medical clinic would benefit this village and its neighbors. They were able to meet with the University of Belize, the Ministry of Health, a private physician, nurse and villagers to discuss the greatest health needs in the area. Results of the assessment showed that a health clinic that also addressed health education would be a good thing. This information has helped them
in applying for a Catholic Health Initiatives Mission and Ministry International Grant that would help initiate working with the Ministry of Health to establish a clinic.

“It is all about the people and building an ongoing collaborative relationship,” Washburn said, “where we learn from one another and can build a sustainable future together.”

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