'Now there's hope': TR Rotary's Belize school project makes impact over 30 years...and counting
THREE RIVERS — During one of their annual visits to Libertad, Belize in the mid-1990s as part of a Rotary Club project in the area, Larry Campbell from the Three Rivers Rotary Club noticed a block foundation, about three blocks high, that had been laid for a new school building.
Campbell asked the people around the construction site when it would be done, and the response from one of the workers was that they didn’t know.
“They work in the factory all day and they don't want to come home at night and work on the school,” Campbell said. “Pretty much, there was no hope.”
After some hard work from Rotary members in the area to get the new school built, over the past 30 years there is now a renewed sense of hope in that particular area of the world.
“At the beginning, it was barren at first,” Campbell said. “Now there’s hope.”
Bringing hope has been the prevailing theme of the past 30 years for Campbell and a multitude of other Three Rivers Rotarians on a project to assist in improving educational services at the school in Central America. What was originally supposed to be a three-year effort has turned into a labor of love from Rotarians and volunteers in the local community and one of the longest-running international Rotary projects in the entire state.
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The project, known as “Belizeserve,” began in 1990, when Rotary District 6360, which encompasses a 15-county area in southwest Michigan, including St. Joseph County, adopted 32 schools in Belize, including the Libertad Roman Catholic School, located 40 miles from the Mexican border. That particular school was adopted by the Three Rivers Rotary Club.
At the time, there were 208 students at the Libertad school, which ranged from kindergarten to eighth grade, and education was free to the students with a small fee from the parents.
Over the initial three years of the project, beginning in 1991, multiple trips to the area were done, sending school books, furniture, tables and school supplies via a variety of different transports – school buses, dump trucks, a fire truck and two ambulances – all the way from Michigan to Belize.
“The first trip was to go down and unload; we had a boxcar full of books. There were probably 20 of us that first time, I was the only one from Libertad school, and you went and separated your books from the pile and you took it to the schools,” Campbell recalled.
Campbell said he unloaded the books he needed – textbooks he said the schools back home were going to “throw away” – and went inside the school for the first time. The school was pretty much set up in the one church building, with moveable walls to divide areas into classrooms, no interior walls and little to no furniture.
Campbell said set the books down on the floor of the school, told the teachers what they were, and went on his way.
“The next year I went back, in 1992, the books were still there where I put them, unopened,” Campbell said. “I said, ‘What's the deal?’ One of the teachers looked at me and said, ‘We don't know how to use them.’”
That led to the Three Rivers Rotary helping out the teachers a little bit more. In the summer of 1993, three principals from the country, including Juana Terry, the principal of the Libertad school, were brought to St. Joseph County to attend educational workshops. The idea to do that was the brainchild of Campbell’s fellow Rotarian, Al Murk. After the workshops, the local teachers who taught those workshops sent them back with one goal: To teach their teachers.
“When they got back, we got a call from our principal, and she said, 'We've decided you should come here and teach us,’” Jane Campbell, Larry’s wife, said. “We said, 'No, no, you need to teach your teachers.' But they said, 'No, no, we think you should come here.'”
So they did.
In August of 1994 – which, by this point, was after the Belizeserve project was formally ended by the Rotary District – a group of teachers from the area, including Jane Campbell, Lois Weed, Jan Riemann and three St. Joseph County ISD staff conducted a four-day educational workshop in the country, attended by 50 teachers from area schools in the Corozal District of Belize, including Libertad. During this time, Larry Campbell, Steve Weed and Jerry Riemann, as well as some local parents, built school desks, benches and repaired school furniture.
The next year, 1995, a request came from the Libertad school to help finish the five-room school that was started, but stalled due to a lack of funds and manpower. Larry, along with fellow Rotarians Murk, Tom Meyer, Aaron Meyer and Dick Maurer, along with volunteers Steve Weed, John Luxon, Ralph Harshburger, and Henry Miller and his son, paid their own expenses and donated their own money to finish the school building. $20,000 was raised to help finish the school.
However, the school wasn’t complete quite yet.
“Al said, well now that they have a school, they need a playground,” Jane Campbell said. “Al asked Larry how much a playground cost. Larry said, ‘I don't know.’ Al then said, ‘Do it and I'll write a check.’”
So he did. With Murk’s financial support, the Al Murk Playground was constructed and dedicated the same year, along with the formal opening of the new school.
Since the funds were raised to build the school in 1995, up to today, almost $127,000 has been raised, delivered, and used to fund the building of the school, which added a second story in 1999 thanks to Raleigh International, and a scholarship program at the Libertad school, named after Juanita Terry, the now-retired principal of the school. The program was established in 1997, and still continues today to provide funds for students at the school to attend high school, which is a big deal for many Belizean families.
“High school costs about $500 Belize, $250 U.S. to attend,” Larry Campbell said.
“In order to go to high school, they have to walk a long distance, ride a bus, or move and live with another family,” Jane Campbell said. “Here, you get a 12-year-old to do that, it's a big commitment to go to a good high school.”
When the Campbells visited in 2019, there were 16 graduates of the school. Thanks to the Rotary’s efforts, and the efforts of the scholarship program, 15 of those graduates went on to go to high school. According to the Three Rivers Rotary, high school scholarship recipients have gone on to careers such as doctor, teacher, banker and store manager. Many seek futures in the hospitality industry, which brings in more than half of the country’s annual revenue.
Both Larry and Jane, who have a library named after them at the school, say the efforts put in by the Rotary over the last 30 years to help the school – spanning now the third generation of students they will be assisting – makes them and others feel grateful.
“We've met so many people, and they are so wonderful. We've had our whole family there, our grandkids. We would have never thought this would be such a blessing to us, as opposed to what you give them,” Jane Campbell said. “They have so little, and you just walk away feeling like we just didn't give enough. And yet, we give so much back.”
The Rotary’s efforts have meant a lot to the community in Libertad over the last three decades.
“The village turns out when we're there. They want to see us, hug us and thank us,” Larry said.
To illustrate that sentiment, at that 2019 graduation ceremony, where Larry was invited to speak, a banner was hung on the railing of the second floor of the school. It read, “Welcome Home to the World’s Greatest.”
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Today, the future of the Libertad school project is a tiny bit uncertain. While the Three Rivers Rotary Board and other donors combine to contribute about $5,000 per year for scholarships, maintenance and school supplies, the Campbells say they have been looking for someone to take over the project in the future.
“We're getting kind of old and tired,” Larry said. “One of my good friends here, a Rotarian, who I thought I'd got on the hook, died a couple years ago. Right now, I don't have anybody in the pipeline. Thought maybe, maybe, my sons would, and I don't think that's going to happen.”
“Well, what will happen, we don't know,” Jane said. “If we can keep the $5,000, we have three people committed to giving almost that amount total, and if we can get that amount going, that could sustain that.”
The Campbells said donations are being accepted for the project still; people can donate funds to the Three Rivers Area Community Foundation, P.O. Box 453 in Three Rivers, with a memo indicating it going to the Belize fund.
Overall, though, the Campbells said they are thankful for everyone that have helped out over the years with a project that’s just as important to the local community as it is to the people in Libertad.
“We've opened some eyes. We're the longest-running international project in this Rotary district. No one has come even close. We're 30 years into this,” Larry said. “We have people over the years that have bought in and hung in there with us, and I think that's unique.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or firstname.lastname@example.org.