When first-grade teacher Jean Kirshner stepped into a classroom in Belize in 2007, she knew her life would never be the same. She could not foresee then how many other lives also would change because of that visit.
Kirshner said she simply saw a need from which she could not turn away.
“I was stunned because there were no books or school supplies,” said the Mammoth Heights Elementary School teacher. “It was heartbreaking. I knew I couldn’t get back on that plane and leave it.”
That visit was the impetus for the Belize Education Program, now a twice-yearly international visit by school staff from Belize and the Douglas County School District. Each fall, DCSD teachers and principals spend their fall break sharing educational practices in Belize, and every spring, staff from Belize visit Douglas County schools.
“The changes have been staggering,” said Ed Goulart, also a Mammoth Heights first-grade teacher and a program participant since 2009. “The first year I went down, most of the classes didn’t have many books for children to read. They had bare concrete floors.
“Since then, we’ve watched the teachers replicate things that will work for them culturally down there. We’ve seen a change in teachers’ attitudes — more collaborative and less a sage on the stage. They’re doing so much to beautify their rooms, putting beautiful artifacts on the walls, finding linoleum to put on those concrete floors.”
The relationship between the two groups of educators also has changed to what Goulart describes as a supportive partnership.
“Together, we’re lifting kids,” Kirshner said. “It’s not through charity but through solidarity.”
Teachers who visit fill suitcases with books and school supplies, saving their carry-ons for personal items. Last year, 24 teachers made the trip to Belize, each with two 50-pound pieces of checked luggage for a total of 2,400 pounds of school supplies.
The program has drawn the attention of the Belize Education Ministry and a U.S. ambassador.
But what pleases Kirshner most is the change she sees in students and teachers.
“I feel like the educators and teachers value their calling on a whole new level,” she said.
Because Douglas County program participants pay the trip’s approximately $1,500 per-person cost, they are a select, highly dedicated group.
The experience they have is personally and professionally transformative. As the excess of American culture is stripped away, both Kirshner and Goulart said their mission both at home and abroad becomes clearer.
“I’ve streamlined what’s important, what do you really need for effective instruction and what’s sort of bling,” Kirshner said.
On a personal level, Goulart said the program also helped him realize a long-held altruistic desire.
“A few years ago, the person who would go to Belize to work with teachers and children was the type of person I always wanted to be,” he said. “And then I did it. Now, that’s just who I am.”