Do you ever find yourself in a new place, surrounded by new faces, and feel like you belong there?
It’s been 9 months (what!) now since I reached Belize, which is hard to believe. I’ve been busy, busy, busy, serving as a social worker, managing intentional community at home and community outside the house, delving into my spirituality, engaging in conversations surrounding social justice in a Belizean setting, learning Kriol and understanding Belizean culture.
I realized I never fully explained my 8-5 job with most people who are supporting me from back in the States – which is partially because I’ve been lax about sharing on this blog (sorry) and partially because each day is different. At this point, though, I think I’ve got it mostly figured out. So here’s a peek inside my job as a social work case manager for Hand in Hand Ministries’ (HHM) Building For Change (BFC) program:
Hand in Hand originally began in Louisville, KY, but has since expanded to open offices in both Belize (2002) and Nicaragua (2005). Our office here in Belize also consists of an outreach center that provides HIV/AIDS care and prevention for children in the country as well as a daycare and preschool for children affected by poverty, and a scholarship program for high school students seeking tutoring services and/or community service opportunities.
Traditionally, a Belize JV (me!) is placed with Mr. P and Rashida in the BFC program. Together, we work to screen applicants, walk with them through the application process and, eventually, build them (at no cost) a 16 x 20 ft. wooden house made of treated pine wood and an aluminum roof with 2 doors, 1 partition and an 8 x 3 ft. space for a bathroom (can you tell I’ve said that a few times??) The house may not sound too impressive, but for the families that come to us for aid, it can make a world of difference.
My part in this process differs from day to day: a large portion of my time is spent in my little nook of the office working on paperwork and taking walk-in meetings with potential partners (clients). I share information about our no-cost housing program with anyone who comes in our door. In order to be considered for our program, the potential partner must meet certain criteria including having legal ownership or permission to build on a piece of land, making a monthly household income of $1,200 BZD ($600 USD) or less, live in poor, overcrowded or unsafe conditions, rent without being able to afford rent payments, or simply be homeless.
The first step in the application process is for the potential partner to bring in all the required documentation and sit with me or Rash through an hour-long intake interview. During this interview, we ask all sorts of questions regarding their current living situation and anything else we deem pertinent to the case.
Every other Thursday, our Selection Committee travels to visit potential partners at their current residences. This is probably one of my favorite parts of my job because I get to see parts of Belize I wouldn’t ever see otherwise. I’m learning this city, especially the Southside, better than some Belizeans know it. I’ve travelled to Ladyville, Hattieville, Burrell Boom, Orange Walk, Corozal and all sorts of places in between with the SC. There’s something about being invited into a stranger’s home that immediately ties you and them together, even if for the briefest of time.
The other Thursdays, our SC meets in the office to discuss current cases and decide who to accept into our program. It’s a big responsibility, having a say in who is invited to our program and who isn’t – it’s definitely the most challenging aspect of my job here in Belize, because it’s hard to get to know a person and their situation so intimately and then decide whether or not we can help. But it’s also so wonderful to give acceptance letters and see the joy that breaks across people’s faces as they realize what this means for them and their family – a home!
As much as BFC is a housing program, it’s also an empowerment program. Once accepted, partners enter what we call the courtship period: this is when they are required to one, attend monthly education classes (ranging in topic from managing stress, personal finance, first aid/CPR, writing resumes, etc.) and two, participate in builds for other partners’ houses. As we always say, Hand in Hand isn’t a hand out, it’s a hand up – in the BFC program, we work hard to ensure that we help every partner to the best of our ability, but that they also work to help themselves and each other. Our partners wait anywhere from 3 months to a year before receiving a home, depending on need, how many people are on the waiting list and their participation in our program.
A great example of empowered partners are our Leadership Team members, a group of women who have received homes from HHM in the past and are dedicated to giving back to the program as much as possible. In 2015, the team raised enough money to build a house sponsored solely by our partners! This year, these six strong, independent ladies have the same goal: to build a second house sponsored by the HHM Leadership Team. In order to reach our goal, we work hard throughout the year to fund raise, hosting bake sales, BBQ chicken sales, and in July, our first family fun day fair. It’s a never-ending job, but it’s going to be so worth all the ticket cutting, counting and sales as soon as the house is built for a BFC family by BFC partners – talk about paying it forward.
As much as I love the office parts of my job, I do try to get out about once a week for some hands-on building time. When I first started building back in October, I remember Luis giving me such a hard time about holding my hammer the wrong way – yeah, you heard that right, there’s a wrong way to hold a hammer. And let me tell you, after just a few weeks of building, it became apparent even to me that there truly is a right and a wrong way to hold a hammer. Who knew! These days, I’m building floors, lifting and painting walls, mixing and pouring cement, installing windows and doors, all while withstanding the blazing sun and humidity of Belize. My very favorite building task, though, is roofing – I typically work with Luis and Mr. P, balancing on beams, nailing away. It’s like working in an oven, on that zinc, and I’ve got a rad farmers tan as a result. But at the end of the day, when the breeze hits your sweaty skin and there’s a solid roof on the house that will protect during the rainy season…you kind of don’t mind all the sweat and blisters and smashed fingers along the way.
I’ve learned so much at Hand in Hand in just 9 months – it’s shown me time and time again that lending a hand in even the most simple of ways can truly make a difference, whether that’s by picking up a hammer or simply listening to someone’s story. One of the things I’m most grateful for at Hand in Hand is the opportunity to really walk, dare I say it, hand in hand with our partners, accompanying them from the moment they step into our office asking how to apply for a house to the moment they are handed the keys to their new home.
In nine months I’ve watched 21 houses be built, 21 families receive a home – and I can promise you, there’s nothing like seeing their smiles at the end of the journey.