Belize 2021 Holiday Toy Drive

I introduce you to the second annual holiday toy and book drive hosted by Tattletales of a Speech-Language Pathologist. Last year, with the help of various community participants, supporters, and centers, we were able to to distribute over 200 toys for children ages 0-10 years old, while bringing awareness to families with children with disabilities. We also supported the special needs program at Grand St. Settlement Head Start Center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, along with providing a drum kit for the music program at Riverview School in Elmhurst, Queens. The Riverview School is under the District 75, which primarily services children with significant challenges for development and learning. Five families were hand-picked to be given a holiday token for their children with diagnosed developmental disabilities who received early intervention services in the year 2020. Lastly, one new mother was gifted a crib and other items to support her and her little one on their journey. This year, the seasons greetings are traveling abroad. My organization Tattletales of a Speech-Language Pathologist is partnering with Fountain of the Youth Foundation, which is a non-profit based in San Ignacio, Belize. One of their many missions is to develop a program within the organization to begin to encourage and promote a culture around reading at the primary school level.

This year, in the month of August, I accompanied a team, made up of three speech language pathologists, eleven university students, and local organizers in San Ignacio, Belize with a company named Therapy Abroad. We planned and executed a four-day speech camp for primary school-aged children from the community. These children presented with significant delays in language and social development, and this often impacted their function in daily tasks and schooling. Each story was unique, but the gold trim along the group was the eagerness they had for playing and learning. In the small community where everybody knows everybody, these children were clearly loved and cared for by a village. But in this small community, it was hard to come by adequate resources to ensure that access to learning was fluid, appropriate, and equitable. In addition to finanical strains that are placed on families to provide children with uniforms, books, and school fees, the children of Belize are in a state of emergency due to COVID-19. The current school year in session is being held entirely virtually. Many familes do not have the proper materials to facilitate home learning due to low availability of electronic materials such as tablets, computers, or even cell phones.

Belize has the smallest economy of Central America, and is increasingly dependent on international trade and tourism to alleviate the chronic poverty of many of its systems. While schooling for children at the primary level is free, secondary schooling is not. Higher education opportunities are still extremely limited. We are all familiar with what the school to prison pipline is – well in Belize, given that many children are forced to drop out before they complete their secondary school studies, a high level of gang-related activity in places like Belize City is noted. Young men also find work to help support their families, which often does not coincide with their education, but instead pulls them from it. No matter, the rates of unemployment are about equal for young adults with no primary education as those who have completed tertiary (post-secondary) education, as there is little economic demand for labor that is highly skilled or well-educated, despite how desperately it is needed.

I am a speech-language pathologist. I diagnose and treat a variety of disorders related to speech, language, social communication, feeding, and more. Belizean children do not have any people to provide to them what the Therapy Abroad team did while there. Therefore, the way I relate most to what is happening in Belize is my experience learning about their communities, their people, their culture, their way of life. They take things easy. The motto on the islands is “Go Slow.” The people are amongst some of the kindest and most appreciative I’ve ever met.

While my post in the US is not with primary school children, I do feel the obligation to give this particular age group the attention it deserves. Primary school in Belize is what elementary and intermediate schools are for us here – so, children ages five to fourteen. The public school system that serves our children until 18 and the special education system that serves children until 21 – at no cost to families – is not a reality for people in Belize. A country that harbors five MAJOR ethnic groups and speak three major languages – amongst many others that may also significantly impact the socialization and education of their children – Belize requires a more robust system to stay ahead of the curve. Language differences and deficits are ever difficult to differentiate, even here in the US. Talk about English as a second language, except the children who are foreign to the official language are borne citizens!

It will take much more to fix the cycle than a few more toys, clothes, and books. But it is a part of what we can do to refresh and reframe some of the classrooms that I witnessed lacking in sufficient materials to get by on. We can make it a bit easier to motivate children to go to school because it is more comfortable and they have more to do. We can mobilize some families to become more involved in their children’s learning by giving them electronic devices that not only allow them to tap in on the virtual classroom, but also to use for extra-curricular learning or even augmentative communication. I propose to you that even when you believe a system is broken, there is still something that you can do, and that your little bit goes a long way.

I do hope that you will be able to help us to reach our goal of obtaining 100 new or gently used tablets, computers, or cell phones, as well as 100 headsets for improved virtual learning capacity. We also strive to collect and ship basic school supplies packages for 100 students. For preschool and early primary children, play-based learning is pivotal in development of cognitive and social skills. We hope to also collect toys, such as dolls, blocks, pretend play sets, STEM materials such as playdough and magnetized toys, alphabet and number manipulatives, and more, to distribute amongst eight schools in Belize. Donations of new and gently used clothes and shoes are humbly accepted. Cash donations will go an even farther way as this can help to fund the resources to create better programs that can fight against the odds the Belizean education system is under.

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Sometimes, we can save resources when we order in bulk. Put money in the pot for these items, and they will be ordered as a part of a larger package.