Belize/Pathway Out of Poverty


A little more than twenty-six years ago I went with fifteen people from the Kansas City, MO, to Pueblo Viejo, Belize.  It was a mission trip to build a children’s library for the Peace Corps that were working to strengthen the education system in Belize. Pueblo Viejo is a majority Mayan village that is situated in the Toledo District in the southern third area of the country.  The Guatemalan border is five miles to the west of the village.

Before our arrival to Belize the cinder blocks were delivered.  Our job was to mix concrete, pour the foundation, and build the walls of the library. Some of the toughest work I had ever done was mixing concrete by hand.  We would sift the sand through shaking a screen door back-and-forth to get rid of large rocks and any impurities. Then we added the other ingredients with the sifted sand into a pit that was dug into the ground.

Mixing Concrete Then
Concrete dried and still there 26 years later

After a few days of mixing and pouring concrete, we were extremely tired and knew there was a better way.  In our group was a prominent lawyer from Kansas City.  He called a meeting with the Mayan Chief of Pueblo Viejo to offer to buy the village a cement mixer. The rationale of the cement mixer was that we would not have to work so hard and eventually concrete would be needed on the construction of the school after we left.  This sounded like a win/win, but the village chief said, “no.”  The reason was that the piece of equipment would elevate the status of the village above the other surrounding villages and would cause conflict.  Lee and I agreed and went back to mixing concrete by hand.

There were a few other things that the chief said that we must do if the village were to use the library.  We had several Mayan men help us each day.  The village chief had men from the village give up a day’s work to help us with construction.  This was to insure that we build the building to their specifications.  If we did not use the village men, and it was not built to their specifications, the building would be deemed unsafe by the village and would not be used.  Several years before our trip, a Nazarene Church came to the Toledo District and put a chapel in each village.  The teams did not use anyone from the village and did not build to the village’s specifications.  The village people would not go in, much less use, the chapels because they could not trust the building.

Walls are coming up

We also had to lay rebar (the reinforcement in concrete walls and foundations) every six inches.  This seemed like a waste of money to our team.  The foundation was not going to freeze in Central America, and it surely wasn’t going to expand and contract through drastic temperature changes, but if they were going to use the building, it would have to be done this way.

The whole process was a great learning experience on how to listen to and respect a different culture.  I have always treasured what I learned from the Belizean people and enjoyed my time helping others. Throughout the past twenty-six years, my family has sent children’s books to the library.  From time-to-time, there is a plea for more books because they aren’t always returned to the library and due to the high humidity which causes the books to mold.

I have always wanted to return to Pueblo Viejo, and last week I got the chance. Many things have changed in the twenty-six years since my return. Colleen and I, engaged at the time of the last trip, now are a family of five.  Colleen’s sister, who was in the Peace Corp in Belize and coordinated that trip, married a man from Belize. So the Cueni-Smith family of five and the Tillett family of three went to Belize on a family vacation.

Cueni-Smith Family

Thursday, August 1, 2019, I got the visit the Children’s Library of Pueblo Viejo.  The dirt and rock road that took us each day from San Antonio to Pueblo Viejo (six miles) is now paved, the school is finished and functioning, and they have built a community center adjacent to the library.  The store that was about a quarter mile from the worksite is still open, but it is hidden from view because of a restaurant that is now open.

Pueblo Viejo Then

The day before I went, Colleen went to see the library with our daughters.  They stopped by the store to buy a Coke and were asked by the attendant why they were there in the village.  Colleen told her that we had worked on the children’s library.  The store attendant’s eyes welled up and excitement filled her voice as she told my family what a blessing that library has been for the village.  She explained that children are able to read earlier and often has prepared them to go off and get educated and then come back to do great things for the village.  She added that the success of the village is due to that library. What a blessing this library has been for this village!

Pueblo Viejo Now

When I heard this, my mind went to two things: the cement mixer we tried to buy the village, and The Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church’s mission priority of Pathway Out of Poverty. What would have happened if we would have bought the village that mixer?  What conflicts might have arisen?  Would the village have used the library? I thought of these questions as I looked down at the dried concrete pad that had formed on the area where we had mixed the concrete by hand twenty-six years earlier. The very hard work was an investment in the future of this village.

My second thought was the Pathway Out of Poverty.  Our conference has placed a mission emphasis on this based on research that raising the literacy rate of an individual and/or community is a pathway out of poverty. The words of the store attendant validate the truth of this research!  That library, that weeks’ worth of hard work, has elevated that village far more than any piece of machinery could have. It’s the equivalent to when John F. Kennedy called for the United States of America to be the first landing on the moon.  He really didn’t care about landing on the moon, but when a country, community, and/or conference throws money and effort towards something, something good happens.  Just as the space race propelled America ahead of others in mathematics, engineering and science, literacy can be a pathway out of poverty.


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