Peace Corps Anniversary
September 26, 2012
It is a pleasure to welcome you to U.S. Embassy Belmopan for this important event. Today we celebrate 50 years of continuous Peace Corps service in Belize. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect back on what five decades of Volunteer service has meant to Belize, to contemplate some of Peace Corps’ contributions today, and to consider what Belizeans and Peace Corps Volunteers may be able to accomplish in the future.
During his presidential campaign and well before he had been elected, John F. Kennedy announced his interest in forming an organization of volunteers who would work in developing countries, calling it a “Peace Corps.” Even as a senator, John F. Kennedy had envisioned a program which would allow “…young college graduates [… to] find a full life in bringing technical advice and assistance …” to other nations.
In his inaugural address, perhaps most famous for the line -- “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” -- President Kennedy again promised to create a Peace Corps. It was formally authorized by Congress in September 1961. Soon thereafter, in 1962, the first Peace Corps Volunteers came to Belize.
And Peace Corps Volunteers have been here ever since -- for 50 years. Over 1,800 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Belize since 1962. They have partnered with Belizeans to improve health, education, the environment, rural development, and small businesses.
We can only imagine the challenges the early Volunteers faced when they landed in 1962 in a country that was then called British Honduras. There were no cell phones, digital cameras or home computers. Yet those early Volunteers were motivated and instrumental in helping Belize to train its nurses, teachers, and students. They assisted in building roads, schools, and libraries and installing water systems in some of the most remote villages.
As the decades passed and the information technology age arrived, Peace Corps and Belize moved together from the past into the present. The first Peace Corps IT program worldwide was established right here in Belize.
While Volunteers serve in Belize to enrich Belizean lives in so many ways, I am certain that each and every volunteer took home with them life changing experiences that enriched their own lives and the lives of those around them. Please allow me to share a few amazing volunteer stories:
One of the Volunteers you will meet this morning came to Belize as a business volunteer. When she arrived at the Cristo Rey Tortilla Factory in Corozal District, she found women who were working tirelessly to produce a much-needed, high-quality product, but whose business was not profitable. The factory was not making enough money to sustain the women and their families.
The Volunteer identified the key challenges, rolled up her sleeves and went to work. She organized a calendar of meetings and training sessions. She and the women at the tortilla factory set goals and project completion dates. Soon, the women were able to better organize their own schedules and keep regular business hours. By putting these good business practices to use, they are now working fewer hours while earning on average, 85% more than before.
In early 2011, I visited Guinea Grass, a small village in the north. There I met a PC Volunteer, Molly Fillion. Molly was involved with a massive collaborative effort between the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and a large medical team of doctors, nurses, and dentists from the United States Air Force. 43 medical professionals from the Andrews Air Force Base came to Belize. A total of 5,071 Belizeans were attended to within nine days -- a truly remarkable project.
Nate Thompson was a Business and Organizational Development Volunteer started working with the Cacao Growers Association in Punta Gorda in 2010. He worked closely with the Association, helped to strengthen their marketing and information management system. He created a website and trained the members to use and manage the site. Within in a short period of time the members learned how to do graphic design, use Photoshop, create brochures, print business cards, and grow into a more marketable cacao association.
Nate wasn’t done yet. He was so moved by the cultural heritage of Belize he went on to design the first interactive language training software for four of Belize’s major languages: Garifuna, Q’eqchi, Mopan and Kriol. This was his parting gift to Belize. This software is available free of charge to anyone.
Finally, I want to highlight the work of several Peace Corps Volunteers who have been collaborating with the Ministry of Health. At the Ministry’s request, Peace Corps agreed to help to revise and update the current Community Health Care Manual. These manuals are used by front-line, community health workers who may not have had the benefit of extensive academic training, but whose help is crucial to Belizeans in need, many of whom may not have access to other forms of medical assistance. When the revision is completed, the manual will serve over 200 community health care workers throughout the country.
In addition to reviewing the accomplishments of the past and acknowledging the achievements of current Peace Corps Volunteers, our celebration today will include a tangible reminder of the positive future to come. The Ministry of Health and Peace Corps Belize will sign a letter of Intent to Collaborate so they can join forces to meet the challenges of tomorrow by expanding health education.
This new project is designed to empower Belizeans to assume greater responsibility for their own health and well-being through improved access to health information and through training and promotion of health care principles and concepts. Dr. Peter Allen, as CEO of the Ministry of Health, has been especially instrumental in launching this partnership.
In closing, I would like to congratulate both the U.S. Peace Corps and the people of Belize for 50 years of partnership -- a partnership that has resulted in positively impacting thousands of lives in Belize and in the United States of America. It is easy to imagine how such a partnership has allowed Belizeans and Americans to accomplish great things in life.
I wish Peace Corps Belize and the Ministry of Health continued success, as together they begin a new era of cooperation.