By LAN SLUDER
Want to take a break from school, work or other regular responsibilities? Would you like to help others less fortunate than you, or perhaps do something for the world by assisting in conservation activities? Would you like to learn a new skill, or spend time investigating the mysteries of the Maya world? Then you may want to investigate volunteer opportunities in Belize.
KINDS OF VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES AVAILABLE IN BELIZE
In Belize there are basically three kinds of volunteer opportunities available:
Church and medical-related "mission" work. This typically involves a week to several weeks of volunteer work in a medical or dental clinic, building churches or homes or other assistance. Usually these mission groups are based outside of Belize, often at a church or school or as a part of a local medical society, and typically volunteers travel to Belize at the same time, as a group. In most cases, volunteers pay for their own transportation to Belize, along with personal expenses in the country, but food and lodging sometimes is provided by the mission, paid for by donations. Because these medical and religious missions are so diverse and fragmented, it's not possible to provide a list of them. Your best bet is to contact your church, college or local medical society and ask if they know of missions to Belize.
Organized volunteer programs. These organized programs are of two general types: In the first, which may be run either by a for-profit firm such as a travel company or by a not-for-profit charity or university, volunteers provide for their own transportation to and within Belize, pay a fee -- perhaps US$10 to $25 a day -- for lodging and board and may also pay a placement fee or "contribution" which can be several hundred dollars or more. Some "volunteer" programs of several weeks or months in length can cost the volunteer thousands of dollars. In the case of the second type, volunteers do not pay a fee and they may receive food and lodging in exchange for their volunteer work, but they usually have to pay transportation and incidental expenses out of pocket.
In Belize typically these volunteer programs revolve either around conservation, such as working with wildlife or reef preservation, or around archeology, with volunteers assisting on a dig at a Maya site. A few programs offer volunteer opportunities in education, animal care or social work. Some of these programs are Belize-based, such as those at the Belize Zoo or Programme for Belize. Others are based in the U.S., U.K. or elsewhere outside Belize.
Advantages of these structured programs include the fact that they are available to all kinds of volunteers and that they usually can be arranged ahead of time, before arriving in Belize. A commitment of at least a couple of weeks is often required for these programs, which benefits both the organization which has to train volunteers and the volunteers themselves who require time to adjust to the work and the Belize climate and environment.
For contact information, see the listing of volunteer organizations below.
Independent volunteering. In Belize, as in most countries, it is possible and, in most cases, easy to just go to a worthwhile organization and volunteer your services. Conservation organizations, churches, libraries, medical clinics, humane societies, schools are among those that may welcome volunteers. For example, the YWCA in Belize City accept volunteers to help teach sports and arts activities. But there are hundreds of churches and schools in Belize, and many of these would welcome volunteers to help out with teaching, outreach or other activities. Usually, you will not receive any lodging or food in return for your volunteer activities, but in a few cases this might be available. To arrange this kind of independent volunteer work, it is usually necessary to be in Belize and to make personal contact with the organization you are seeking to help. It is rare that you will be able to arrange satisfactory volunteer work before you arrive. In fact, most of these volunteer opportunities in Belize are completely unstructured. It's up to YOU to dig out areas of need and then to go and volunteer your services.
This information was accurate at time of publication, but things change quickly. Check with individual organizations directly for current information. Note that many of these organizations charge fees -- which may be tax-deductible as contributions -- for transportation, room, board and placement.
Belize Audubon Society, 12 Fort St., P.O. Box 1001, Belize City, Belize, C.A.; tel. 501-223-5004; ]www.belizeaudubon.org ; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org For more than 32 years, BAS has long been considered the premier conservation organization in Belize, and the amount of good it has done is unmeasurable. BAS, which is entirely independent from the National Audubon Society, has 1,700 members. Through an agreement with the Government of Belize, it manages eight parks and protected areas including Cockscomb, Crooked Tree, Half Moon Caye and Tapir Mountain. While BAS does not have a highly organized volunteer program, those interested in volunteering can contact BAS to see if any help is needed in the office or in its education and field programs. The annual Christmas Bird Count, held in Belize City, Punta Gorda, Belmopan and Gallon Jug, is a time when volunteer birders do their things.
Belize YWCA, 119 St. Thomas & Freetown Road, P.O. Box 158, Belize City, Belize, C.A.;
tel. 501-224-4971; e-mail email@example.com The YWCA accept volunteers for its sports, arts and other other programs.
Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, P.O. Box 1787, Belize City, Belize, C.A.; tel. 501-220-8003; www.belizezoo.org ; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org The Belize Zoo is one of the truly great conservation organizations in Central America, and its director, Sharon Matola, has done a tremendous amount to further eco awareness and education in Belize, though her work has not always been appreciated by the powers-that-be in Belize. The adjoining Tropical Education Center offers a wide range of education and outreach programs. Motivated volunteers may be accepted to assist Belize Zoo and TEC programs.
Birds Without Borders/Aves Sin Fronteras, c/o 10005 West Blue Mound Road, Milwaukee, WI 53226 414-258-2333; www.zoosociety.org Birds Without Borders is a research, education and conservation organization coordinated by the Zoological Society of Milwaukee County (Wisconsin). It operates in Belize in association with the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center and with private landowners. The group was formed in 1996 to study migratory birds common to both Wisconsin and Belize (there are at least 114 of these common species). Occasional volunteer opportunities may be available.
Cornerstone Foundation, 90 Burns Avenue, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize, C.A.; tel. ; 501-678-9909 www.cornerstonefoundationbelize.org ; e-mail email@example.com This non-profit organization is one of the best-known volunteer organizations in Belize. Its programs include various cultural, community service, and peace-related volunteer programs in Cayo District. Volunteers commit for a minimum of three weeks (three months in the longer-term programs). For longer-term programs, individuals pay US$300 to $400 a month for housing, couples and families US$600. There is a US$100 application fee, a weekly meal fee of around US$15 and other fees. Those involved in three-week programs such as the AIDS Education or Natural Healing programs pay a fee of around US$550 to $650. At any one time, the foundation may have from one to 18 volunteers in Belize, plus local administers and staff.
Green Reef, 100 Coconut Drive, San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye, Belize, C.A.; tel. 501-226-3254 ext 243; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Founded in 1996, Green Reef is a private, non-profit group based in San Pedro, devoted to protecting Belize's marine and coastal resources. Among its projects are establishing mooring buoys to protect the barrier reef, the management of two cayes near Ambergris as bird sanctuaries and monitoring Jewfish populations in Belize. Green Reef currently doesn't have a volunteer coordinator, but it says it is interested in hearing from prospective volunteers, especially those with skills in Web design, photography, fund-raising, community involvement and education. In the past it has had Peace Corps members as full-time volunteers and has worked with Smith College and Kansas State University to bring in volunteers.
King's Children Home, 38/40 Unity Blvd., P.O. Box 144, Belmopan, Belize, C.A.; tel. 501-822-2021: The Kings Children Home is a non-profit organization which assists children in Belize who have lost their parent(s) through death, have been abandoned, abused and/or neglected. KCH needs volunteers to help out, for any period of time, but preferable for 2-6 month periods or longer. Volunteers work with kids from 1-18 years of age. Activities may include tutoring, counseling, clerical duties and pre-schooling.
Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, P.O. Box 187, Belmopan, Belize, C.A.; tel. 501-820-3032; www.monkeybaybelize.org ; e-mail email@example.com Monkey Bay is a private wildlife sanctuary and environmental education center on 1,070 acres near the Belize Zoo. Links to other conservation organizations in Belize and Monkey Bay's own programs provide some volunteer opportunities in conservation and community service. Monkey Bay also offers home stay programs, as well as 12- to 21-day education and adventure programs for students (middle school to university). The education programs are at rates of about US$75 a day.
Mount Carmel High School, Benque Viejo del Carmen, Cayo, Belize, C.A. ; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org This school is highly unusual in that it has an all-volunteer faculty. Volunteers, who must be four-year university graduates and be "willing to teach in a Catholic environment," commit to teach for a period of one to two years, and in return they receive room, board and US$12.50/week in spending money. The minimum commitment is one school year, from mid-August until mid-June and the typical length is two years with the summer off. Living arrangements are spartan but clean. Meals are taken together in the rectory. For information, e-mail email@example.com with the name of the school principal, Tim Robinson, in the subject line.
Programme for Belize, 1 Eyre Street, P.O. Box 749, Belize City, Belize, C.A.; tel. 501-227-5616; www.pfbelize.org ; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This completely Belizean-run organization manages the 260,000-acre Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area, the country's second-largest protected reserve, representing about 4% of Belize's land area. Programme for Belize accepts paying guests at its Rio Bravo and Hill Bank research stations, where visitors enjoy simple but pleasant accommodations and hearty local fare. Volunteer opportunities may occasionally be available, both in conservation and in archeology. La Milpa is one of about 60 Maya sites on the Rio Bravo lands. (Note: Also see University of Texas/Programme for Belize Archeological Project below.)
SAGA Society, Coconut Drive, San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize, C.A.; tel. 501-226-3266; www.ambergriscaye.com/sagasociety/ ; e-mail email@example.com Saga is a non-profit organization, founded in 1999, whose purpose is to assist homeless and suffering dogs, cats and other animals on Ambergris Caye. Most of the stray dogs and cats on Ambergris, as elsewhere in Belize, are not neutered, and many are undernourished with a variety of diseases. The local approach to control has been to use strychnine poison. Saga is trying to raise funds to build an animal shelter on the island and to establish a subsidized neutering program. This small group has no organized volunteer program, but local volunteers are welcomed. More volunteers will be needed if and when a shelter is up and running.
Teachers for a Better Belize is an all-volunteer partnership of educators from North America and Belize who work to improve the training of teachers and the education of children in the rural Toledo district of Belize. TFABB aids Toledo's primary-school teachers and principals with training, supplies, and facilities required to help their students achieve academic success and thereby escape poverty. They have organized annual teacher-training and/or school-related construction projects in Belize since 1997.
Teachers for a Better Belize
13606 Peacock Farms Road
St. Louis, Missouri 63131-1232
Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), P.O. Box 150, Punta Gorda Town, Toledo District, Belize, C.A.; tel. 501-722-2274 ; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Formed in 1997, TIDE focuses on conservation in Toledo District. The group helps manage the Port Honduras Marine Reserve and Paynes Creek National Park. To raise funds, it offers ecotours. Contact the organization to see what volunteer opportunities may be available.
Wildlife Care Center of Belize, c/o Robin Brockett, Director, email@example.com This small operation, supported by Woodland Park Zoological Society (601 North 59th St., Seattle, WA 98103, tel. 206-615-1030), and working with the Belize government agencies, is a "way station" for rescued birds and other wildlife, located near the Belize Zoo at the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Occasionally, self-supporting volunteers are accepted for periods of a month or more. Interested persons should contact Robin Brockett.
OPERATING IN BELIZE BUT BASED OUTSIDE BELIZE:
Belize Faith Missions, c/o Conner's Bookkeeping, 5790 Riverside Ave., Riverside, CA 92506; www.belizefaithmissions.org ; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org A variety of volunteer and religious mission opportunities are available, ranging from one- and two-week programs to longer-term pastoring positions. Accommodations and food may be provided volunteers.
Earthwatch International, 3 Clock Tower Place, Suite 100, Box 75, Maynard, MA 01754; tel. 800-776-0188; www.earthwatch.org ; e-mail email@example.com Founded in 1971, the not-for-profit Earthwatch specializes in scientific research expeditions. Paying volunteers (expeditions range in cost from US$700 to $4,000, depending on length, plus transportation) are paired with professional scientists in the field. So far, about 4,000 volunteers have participated in Earthwatch programs. Most projects are 10 to 14 days, but some are longer. In Belize, Earthwatch has a continuing program studying manatees, with about 10 or 12 expeditions a year, and in the past has had archeological programs. The cost for 2003 is US$1,695 plus air fare and incidental expenses.
Explorations in Travel, Inc., 2458 River Rd., Guilford, VT 05301; tel. 802-257-0152; www.volunteertravel.com ;e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Places volunteers and interns at several sites in Belize, including Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Commitment is usually for two to three weeks. Volunteers typically pay US$15 to $20 per day for meals and lodging, and there is a placement fee of US$975.
EcoLogic Development Fund, P.O. Box 383405, Cambridge, MA 02238; tel. 617-441-6300; www.ecologic.org ; e-mail email@example.com EcoLogic works with local Maya organizations in protect their homelands from a government-sanctioned logging concession. EcoLogic is also working to create Mayan alternatives to managing Sarstoon-Temash National Park that respect traditional land rights and safeguard areas of biodiversity. In 2002, EcoLogic was seeking an intern for a minimum three-month commitment to work as an organizational assistant with the Ketchi Council of Belize in Punta Gorda. The position is unpaid but EcoLogic says it will assist the volunteer to find funding for room, board and transportation.
International Service Community in Belize, ISC, P.O. Box 380, Swarthmore, PA 19081-0380; isc.swarthmore.edu. ISC's goal is "to permit volunteers to use a lifetime of experience to provide service areas of need in the world for a few months each year while also enjoying the experience to travel and of community living." Volunteers, mostly retired persons, stay at Crytal Paradise Lodge near San Ignacio. In 2003, the ISC program in Belize will operate during the month of January and for the first two weeks of March. Recent projects by volunteers include researching and writing a booklet on lodges in Belize that offer good birding and helping develop nutritionally sound meal programs for elderly Belizeans. The cost is about US$30 to $40 a day for lodging and two meals, close to the same as the regular resort rate at Crystal Paradise, plus transportation to Belize. Begun in 1995, ISC also has a pilot program in Sri Lanka.
Maya Research Program at Blue Creek, Box 298760, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX 76129; tel. 817-257-5943; www.mayaresearchprogram.org . This archeological research station, organized by Texas Christian University, is in Blue Creek, in rural Orange Walk District. It attracts about 30 students and paying volunteers to each of four two-week programs, where they work with 15 to 30 professional staff. The day starts around 6 a.m., with breakfast at 6:30, and most of the work day (until 3:30 p.m.) involves strenuous activity at a Maya site. Your required contribution (likely tax-deductible) is US$1,250 for a two-week program (US$1,000 for each program if you participate in two or more programs) which includes lodging and food, but not transportation to Belize or personal expenses. A small number of scholarships is available for students who intend to pursue archeology as a career. Academic credit through TCU or another university may be available.
Plenty International, www.plenty.org ; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Plenty places volunteers with medical, midwifery, marketing and other skills in Toledo District and elsewhere. This grassroots organization, founded in Tennessee in 1974, places 8 to 10 volunteers a year, mostly in Belize. There is a minimum three-month commitment. A nominal (US$30) placement fee is charged, and there are no stipends or other payments to volunteers, but in some cases volunteers may receive food and housing.
Raleigh International, 27 Parsons Green Lane, London SW6 4H, England: tel. 44 (0) 20-7371-8585; www.raleigh.org.uk ; e-mail email@example.com This U.K.-based organization runs 11 three-month expeditions a year in seven countries. It operated volunteer projects in Belize for five years, including building trails in Cockscomb and in scarlet macaw habitat near Red Bank village. Raleigh says it will run at least two expeditions in Belize starting in 2003, details of which have not yet been announced. Programs are for young people ages 17 to 25. Note: In August 1998, a Raleigh volunteer was stabbed to death near Red Bank village in Stann Creek district. Two local men were arrested and convicted of the crime.
Trekforce Expeditions, 34 Buckingham Palace Road, London, England, SW1W 0RE; tel. 020 7828 2275; www.trekforce.org.uk ; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Trekforce bills itself as an "expedition charity." It has two basic programs, a shorter program of about two months which involves a project in the rainforest such as building a visitor center at a national park; and a longer program, about five months, that adds rural teaching and language learning components. About 1,000 volunteers so far have participated in Trekforce programs around the world. When you sign up for an expedition, you "become a member of our charity and are authorized to raise money on our behalf." Volunteers can raise money to pay for their expedition just about any way they like -- by holding raffles, bake sales, car washes or by soliciting funds from corporations and friends. Trekforce currently offers several 8- and 20-week expeditions in Belize each year. The 8-week expedition costs 2,350 pounds (about US$3,400) and the 20-week 3,600 pounds (US$5,200), in both cases plus airfare.
University of California Research Expeditions, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616; tel. 530-757-3529; e-mail email@example.com UC-Davis runs four two-week programs on rainforest mammals in the Bladen watershed area of Toledo District. Participants count and measure trees, survey populations of birds and mammals and document the types of seeds they consume. Animals are tagged, weighed and released. Cost ("contribution") is US$1,660 plus airfare and incidentals. Some scholarships are available.
University of Texas/Programme for Belize Archeological Project, Mesoamerican Archaeological Research Laboratory, The University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712; tel.
512-232-7049; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org The University of Texas at Austin, Department of Anthropology, since 1992 has operated a field research station on Programme for Belize lands. Volunteers must commit for a minimum of one week, up to a maximum of 15 weeks. The field school program involves survey, excavation at several Maya sites, and laboratory experience working directly with excavated Maya artifacts. Field techniques, lectures on Maya culture history and instruction concerning artifact analysis are provided during each session. Program fees are US$620/week or US$1880/4 weeks; after 4 weeks, the cost is US$300 for each additional week, up to 15 weeks. Fees are plus transport to Belize and personal expenses, but do include meals and lodging. Students have the opportunity to earn university credits.
Volunteer Latin America www.volunteerlatinamerica.com, provides information on affordable volunteer work opportunities in Latin America. They offer volunteers a range of volunteer work projects that support environmental conservation and local community development in Central and South America.
World Challenge Expeditions, tel. 020 8728 7206; www.world-challenge.co.uk ;
e-mail: email@example.com World Challenge offers teaching and conservation placements in several areas of Belize, for periods of either three or six months. Teaching placements are in rural schools in Corozal, Orange Walk and Cayo districts; conservation placements could be with a warden at a marine reserve or at a visitor center at a park. Volunteers, mostly under age 25, are given an orientation course before coming to Belize and a short in-country orientation. You live with a local host family and pay about US$175 for lodging and meals, plus around US$2,800 placement fee, which includes training and air fare.
TIPS FOR GETTING MORE OUT OF YOUR VOLUNTEER EXPERIENCE:
* Don't expect to get free room and board or other compensation. In some cases, this may happen but more commonly you will have to pay your own way and may even have to pay a fee for the "privilege" of volunteering.
* Expect to work hard. Some programs such as archeological digs require hard manual labor. Initially at least you also will have to acclimate your body to Belize's hot, humid sub-tropical climate.
* You may have to put up with primitive living conditions. While some medical mission volunteers stay at nice hotels, many volunteers will be living on the local, staying in Belize-style housing (usually without air-conditioning or even fans and perhaps without indoor plumbing). Conservation and archeological volunteers may basically camp out.
* Volunteer organizations and their programs change constantly, so be sure you have the latest information on programs and costs. The most up-to-date information is usually on the Internet. Just go to a search engine such as Google and search using key words such as "volunteer work Belize." Also, check out specialized Web sites on working, going to school and volunteering abroad, such as www.gapyear.com and www.transitionsabroad.com.
* Although volunteer organizations usually do good work, keep in mind that for the staff and administrators these programs may be their career or at least a job. Some of the international volunteer organizations are relatively large businesses, and in at least a few cases their good works appear to be subsidiary to maintaining and building the organization.
* A work permit may be required in Belize, even for short-term volunteer work. There is a small fee, usually US$25. For information, contact the volunteer organization or the Immigration and Nationality Department, 501-822-2611 or the Labour Department 501-822-2204.
* Have realistic expectations of what you can accomplish in a short time. Belize has many problems, ranging from underfunded schools to crime, drug and gang problems to family disintegration and child abuse issues to destruction of the rainforest and natural habitats, and none of these will be solved quickly.
* The most typical volunteer in Belize is a college student or a young person who has recently finished college, but volunteers come in all ages and from all backgrounds.
* While not really volunteer organizations, a number of specialized travel and education organizations such as ElderHostel (Box 1959, Dept. 35, Wakefield, MA 01880; tel. 877-426-8056; www.elderhostel.org) offer trips and programs in Belize. Many of these are worth investigating.
* For longer-term volunteering, consider the U.S. Peace Corps, which has a significant presence in Belize.
* Several web sites claim to offer links to volunteer opportunities in the region. One that has links to free or low-cost volunteer opportunities in Central and South America (but few in Belize at present) is www.volunteersouthamerica.net.
Copyright Lan Sluder 2004-2009.