Belize. A tropical paradise nestled between Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea. An eco-traveler's dream destination rainforest jungles harboring a jaguar sanctuary, turquoise waves foaming over one of the largest coral barrier reefs in the world, ancient Mayan temples buried in lush vines, an atmosphere so laid-back it's almost comatose, poverty, no running water and Donna Reishus.
Reishus is far from home teaching Belize women how to become self-empowered. She runs a women's health clinic in Punta Gorda, a tiny seaside village in southern Belize. She moved there from Craig in October, and is home for 10 days to visit her grown children over the holidays.
For the tourists, Belize has no high-rise hotels and only one brand of beer, yet it compensates by having some of the best diving in the world, English-speaking natives, untouched jungle and restaurants that serve fried paca (a small, brown-spotted rodent similar to a guinea pig).
Creole-dominated with a thoroughly coup-free history, Belize can be a difficult place to live. There are only two paved roads in the entire country, prices are high, water is unpotable and there are no supermarkets.
"A lot of the people have TVs, yet they have erratic electricity and outhouses in the backyard," Reishus said. "They wear Nike shoes and Tommy Hilfiger shirts, but there are no dentists and their nutrition is very poor."
She first discovered Belize 25 years ago when she was a nurse in the Peace Corps. In Belize, Peace Corps volunteers educate teachers in rural areas, many of whom have never been trained. They also work to reduce a high infant mortality rate, high maternal mortality rate, chronic malnutrition, high incidents of cholera and malaria, and provide information about how to prevent HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. Environmental volunteers from around the world assist in education training workshops and activities for Belize teachers, school children and out-of-school youth. And, as Belize faces the challenges of a growing youth population, volunteers teach unemployed Belizean youth vocational skills such as auto-mechanics, construction, welding, electronics, hospitality management and agribusiness.
After the Peace Corps, Reishus lived in Craig for several years, working as a nurse practitioner with Moffat Family Clinic and doing women's health care with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association. She served on the Moffat County School District Board of Education for 12 years.
"I love Craig, and I loved my work here," she said. "I want people to know I didn't leave because I didn't like it here. I left because I suddenly felt like I had a different calling."
She revisited Belize in March and had what she describes as a spiritual experience.
"I looked at the people and the villages and a health clinic that had been closed down and I thought 'This is what I need to be doing with my life.' I was struck by the feeling that I could be of service to the people in some way, and had an overwhelming feeling that I wanted to lead a simpler life," she said.
Reishus' biggest challenge in Punta Gorda is cleanliness, sanitation and hygiene. Because water is scarce, baths are rare. She lives primarily on a diet of beans and rice, and can only get fresh produce when farmers bring it to the village on market days. The water is recycled and, although many villagers live in thatched huts, Reishus' home is made of cement with a tin roof.
She runs her clinic through the Belize Family Life Association, an organization that sends supplies, but does not pay a salary. Her filing cabinet has one drawer because the top three drawers rusted out. The stirrups on her exam table are loops of string. A new exam light has been ordered to replace the one, which has been patched with duct tape.
Reishus said women in Belize had never heard of a physical exam before she opened the clinic. The number-one cause of death in Belizean women occurs during pregnancy and in childbirth.
"The grief over losing a child goes unaddressed. I've seen women who have been pregnant 23 times and have only 11 children living," Reishus said. "I want to help women space their pregnancies and have healthy children."
Belize has the highest rate of AIDS in Central America, Reishus said. She counsels some men on contraception and sexually-transmitted diseases, but she primarily helps women in her clinic.
"Women are so unempowered over there," she said. "They don't have a clue about their body or women's liberation. Some men write notes to me giving their wives permission to come to the clinic and see me."
Many people have been very generous in supporting Reishus' work in Belize.
"They ask me all the time what I need and what can they send to help the people there. But people in third-
world countries don't need things. They need hygiene, clean water, education and acts of kindness," she said.
Several of Reishus' friends are teachers at Sunset Elementary school. Those teachers Shari Griffen, Verla Halsem, Charlotte Mason, Paula Kincaid, Kathy Knez, Cheryl Arnette and Kris Bye decided to coordinate a pen pal program between their students and the children in Punta Gorda.
"We all know Donna and saw this as an opportunity for our kids to learn about another country," Arnette said. "Belize is a beautiful rainforest area and, as we learned about it in class, the children were fascinated to see that other people don't live like we do. Our small town is pretty sheltered, and most kids here have not seen extreme poverty. In Belize, the children have no shoes."
"They're poor and don't have electricity, so they use sunlight," Sunset Elementary School student Cameron Klimper said.
"They have to go outside to the bathroom," said Dylan Tomlin, another student.
The students wanted to correspond with the children in Belize. "The project has made the children aware that some kids don't have material things, and that's not a bad thing it's just different, and being different isn't wrong," Arnette said. "Knowing things are scarce down there, the children sent pencils and paper with their letters so the Belize children could write back."
Kathy Knez came up with the idea to send Christmas gifts to Belize. The students at Sunset Elementary brought in small items and each child filled bags with the little gifts. They mailed a box in care of Reishus.
"When they opened our presents, I think we made them feel good," student Katelyn Ellgen said .
Reishus said the Belize children were overjoyed and deeply touched to receive the letters and Christmas packages.
"The outpouring of generosity by these children and all the people who have donated many things has been overwhelming," she said. "People here are so kind."
Arnette said Reishus' trip has been a learning project for teachers, too.
"We've been struck by how technology is changing the world so fast, and yet so many people are still living in poverty. I was especially touched by the caring of the kids and the expressions on their faces when they were filling the Christmas bags so giving."
"On Christmas morning, when I open my presents, I will think of Belize and the children there," said Sunset student Lindsey Yoast.
Students may empathize with Belizean children, but there's no feeling sorry for Reishus.
"Living this way has been wonderful for me scrubbing my clothes by hand, buying a whole fish at market instead of filets packaged in cellophane. Just living takes time, but that's okay. It's the way I wanted to live. One of the most powerful things I've experienced is the communication I've received from so many people in Craig that has really kept me going, especially when some of the times in Belize have been hard," Reishus said. "But if I can make a difference for the women in Belize, then I will feel like I've accomplished what I was put there to do."
To contact Reishus, write to her at: # 6 Vernon St., Punta Gorda, Toledo District, Belize, Central America, or e-mail her at email@example.com
CUTLINE: Belize - Donna mug
daily press photo/mikaela rierson