St. Louisans aid Belize City school counter social ills

Fr. Thomas Rochford, SJ

A bright, white picket fence, trees and a neatly trimmed yard catch the eye of visitors to the parish campus in Belize -- a church, three primary school classroom buildings, a preschool and parish center.

St. Martin de Porres Parish stands out as a beacon of light in a neighborhood of Belize City ravaged by drug violence. The U.S. Department of State calls the Central American country south of Mexico on the Caribbean, "a high-crime country." The majority of homicides -- a rate 10 times that of the U.S. -- occur in Belize City, where gang violence is rampant, especially on the south side of the city, an area that includes St. Martin de Porres Parish.

The parish leadership is fighting back -- by providing young people a solid education with hope for the future. The bolstering of the school is happening with the help of St. Louisans, especially those with ties to St. Louis University and the Jesuits. The volunteers are helping implement many of the practices used by the NativityMiguel schools in St. Louis such as Loyola Academy and St. Cecilia School in St. Louis, including a long school day, summer school and high expectations.

The parish pastor, Father Matthew Ruhl, was pastor of St. Matthew Parish in north St. Louis from 1994 to 2001. At St. Martin de Porres, his priority is a safe environment for children. "There's no question that the violence I've encountered in Belize City is far greater than anything I encountered in St. Louis or East St. Louis," said Father Ruhl, who also served at Jesuit parishes in East St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.

The Jesuits of the Missouri Province have been in Belize City for more than 100 years. As "Men and Women for Others," as the Jesuit motto says, it is our responsibility to serve the poor, Father Ruhl noted. Because of the difficulty of raising capital for parish improvements, his students, he explained, do not have a place to eat their lunch. They often sit in the sun or struggle to stay out of the rain.

The school has 700 students and 90 in the preschool, he noted. His parishioners -- unparalleled in spirit -- can't tackle the problem alone. "The problem is so vast in Belize that it is going to take a lot of people together. It's a huge undertaking," Father Ruhl said.

Pope Francis has asked people to try to love as Jesus did, Father Ruhl said, and helping with the school in Belize is a way to imitate Jesus' love of the poor.

Illegal drug users in the United States are contributing to deaths in Central America related to the drug trade, the parish pastor noted.

The parish also has food programs, services for seniors and youth programs and has spun off programs in health care, home construction and other services for the poor. But it is the grade school that plays a crucial role in helping youth.

Dave Danis of St. Louis went to Belize with a group of men from White House Retreat a dozen years ago. He thought it would be a good place for another Jesuit program, Boys Hope, but that program went in another direction. The work at St. Martin de Porres, though, caught Danis' attention. Without help, he said, half of the children in Belize City drop out of school before finishing grade school. Too many of them will be murdered by age 18, he added.

Danis got others involved in the effort, including retired educators Tom and Maureen Nolan. Tom Nolan was executive director of Access Academies schools, which use the NativityMiguel model, and founding director of Loyola Academy.

Among other things, the St. Louis volunteers, under the name of Project Heal, have paid for a counselor for the school, started a pilot after-school program and taken initial steps for a music program.

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