As a kid, I never went to summer camp. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I spent my summer vacation playing with the neighborhood gang, arguing with my younger brothers and hanging out at the town pool.
But for many, sleep away camp was a chance to get out of the city…or to meet up with new friends…to learn to swim or hike…to have a first crush…mostly to be parent-free and stretch your wings for a few days…or more.
Last Thursday, I headed up to a summer camp on North Ambergris Caye not really knowing what to expect. Other than kids…bunks…swimming…summer camp. And I met an amazing group of children & teens, some exceptional adults and had one of my most memorable experiences in my 8 years in Belize.
I took an early boat up north from the Hol Chan Marine office in San Pedro. We were headed all the way up to the Basil Jones cut in the reef (see arrow below) – 14 miles north of town and right in front of the camp.
This is the second year of summer camp at Camp Basil Jones. The site, just south of gorgeous Tranquility Bay Resort, is used for education for international university students during most of the year.
Teach 100 Belizean children, many who had never been to Ambergris Caye and some who had never seen our reef or even the ocean, about the environment. Allow them the chance to see more of their country.
This year, groups are coming from Belize City, Benque, Orange Walk and Southern Belize.
I was there for the last night of Week One. A group of kids from some of the roughest neighborhoods in Belize City. Most with fathers who are not around – many in prison or dead. Kids who worry about bathing in clean water or their next meal or finding a way to get shoes for school.
They are part of a Boys and Girls’ Club on Albert Street in Belize City called Water Walkers Belize. And a woman named Julie Miguel started the club, first in her clothing shop (the kids would ring her door bell and run) and then in a donated space across the street and is changing lives.
Water Walkers because each child that can do better, that can be better, after all they have been through, is a miracle. As is Miss Julie.
Here are some pictures of Camp Basil Jones.
Lincoln, one of the supervisors, a survivor from the Belize City streets, a former member of Water Walkers and a Youth Empowerment Officer at the Dept of Youth Service, was teaching the older kids to make crafts from coconuts.
One of the masterpieces.
And another from NEMO (the National Emergency Management Office) about emergency – especially hurricane – preparedness. Almost all of Belize City is under sea level…important information.
Before lunch we headed out on a mile hike to Rocky Point – the area where the reef meets the land – to see if we could find any turtle nests and to pick up some trash.
One of the boys who had shoes climbed to the top of a coral heap…
The walk back was for plastic pick-up…all sorts of junk washes up on these unpopulated shores. And no one wants a turtle getting tangled.
The kids headed out on the area’s northern most dock to swim. You could not keep these kids out of the water.
About two hours later we were back and HUNGRY. Raul, the cook and another amazing guy, served us giant pots of coconut rice and pig tails & split peas.
The food for the next day was cheap, filling and tasty. Dinner that night, johnny cakes and beans and then pancakes and watermelon for breakfast.
When I asked many children throughout the day what their favorite part of camp was…almost everyone said: The Food…oh yes…and snorkeling.
The afternoon was for art, games, crafts and swimming…
Old school Belizean toys called Johnny Walkers.
These guys practiced tumbling with a mini-trampoline for the night’s talent show.
And they were getting good.
They had spent the previous day collecting, cleaning, hollowing and making milk and oil from the coconuts.
This little girl gave me some beautiful seeds that she had collected.
Raul, our chef, set up a hermit crab race that turned into a huge mass of laughing kids.
Dinner was served and eaten and it was talent show time.
The stage area was ready and the older boys were first. They had practiced a short play…they could have chosen any theme, they could have chosen to sing or dance but they acted. About a street vendor being robbed by criminals, reporting it to the police and then getting harassed by them too.
Of all the topics these boys could have chosen. It was telling and heartbreaking.
The younger boys tumbled, there was a solo singer, some hoola hoop action and the girls’ danced….
…there was an awards ceremony…
MC and Chef Raul, Lincoln, Miss Julie in the center, Mito and his daughter 11 year old Karina who helped at camp and won the admiration of all the kids and adults.
And woke up to a gorgeous day.
The kids were having a group meeting with Miss Julie. Friday was the day to make it back to Belize City. Camp was over after lunch.
Some kids were a bit less reserved and posed for pictures.
The group posed for a picture with Miss Julie in the center and Mito Paz to the right.
And they spent their last hours at the beach swimming and playing.
The odds of a baby turtle hatching on North Ambergris Caye making it to adulthood is maybe one in 1000. Probably even less.
I’m not sure what the odds are for kids in Belize City. For these kids, life has been unfair. I’m so happy that they got this chance to spend a few days learning to snorkel and tumble and play basketball and eat until they were full. And though I’m not much one for praying, I PRAY that these beautiful kids can go on to lead the lives they deserve to live.
Mito, four weeks with teenagers from around the country…what a challenge. You have done amazing things with the growing San Pedro House of Culture, what you are doing for these kids is just…beautiful.
Miss Julie, opening and running a boys and girls’ club in Belize City for over 150 children, 7 days a week and running a community outreach program…it is absolutely miraculous.
I hope to come visit you guys in Belize City very soon.