It’s 2007, and Rebecca Knight, MD, is in the Cayo District of Belize, in the small town of Santa Elena. On the western edge of the country but still about 60 miles inland, the region is known for its rainforests and Mayan ruins and is popular with tourists looking for a more rustic and rugged adventure.
But that’s not why Knight is here. As a general surgeon, she’s on a medical mission at one of the area’s local hospitals. The stream of patients is steady; the hours are rewarding but long. During a break she notices children playing in a schoolyard across the street. She hops over to introduce herself and comes face-to-face with her new mission, one that has nothing to do with medicine.
“There were 500 kids in that school and they all shared one book: a paperback copy of A History of Canada,” she said. “I realized this community needed something more than medicine; they needed literacy – an education that would lift them out of poverty.”
That realization opened the book on the Belize Education Project, a nonprofit Knight and her friends – both in healthcare and education – started in order to give local teachers the tools they needed to promote better learning. The group started by sending books and supplies, an effort that continues today year-round. In addition, they offer multiple programs designed to help kids stay in school and learn more effectively, with educators who are better trained to teach.
BEP’s most consequential effort is the Scholarship Sponsorship Program. For $800, a donor can sponsor a student’s education for an entire year, covering all of the tuition, fees, uniforms, books and supplies.
“Parents in Belize are not required to send their kids to school, and it’s expensive – about $80 per month for high school – so most kids drop out after primary school,” she said. “But that’s such a waste of potential, because these kids are bright and highly motivated to learn. Most of them live in the jungle, with no roads or access to electricity, yet they still show up for school every day and perform well.”
BEP students who graduate from high school are finally able to lift themselves and their families out of the poverty that has been all they’ve ever known. With jobs they can afford proper nutrition every day, clean clothes that fit, motorcycles for their first-ever private transportation and even solar panels on their homes.
“We’ve even sent some students to local colleges. Many of them want to become teachers,” she said. “These are kids who value education and are proud to learn and work hard, and we’re privileged to help them.”
BEP’s story continues today with more students and new lessons. A group, including Knight, is headed back to Santa Elena in March and will be there for what is known in the US as National Pi Day, March 14. In honor of the holiday, students will participate in a special math lesson and home economics project: They all will bake pies for a bake sale to raise money for their own school supplies.
Anyone interested in sponsoring a student, or donating money, books or supplies to BEP, can visit the organization’s website.
The wisdom of staying in your lane: One year, Knight tried her hand at teaching and engaged her students in an art project with purple glitter glue. Because pretty. However, she never explicitly told the kids not to eat the glue, which, of course, they did. They then proceeded to projectile vomit purple glitter glue all over the classroom. Knowing she was a physician, the kids anxiously looked to her to intervene. Knight calmly said, “Vomiting purple glitter glue is not a medical emergency. It’s just gross.” Lesson learned.
One final note: It was a Lutheran Medical Center patient who provided the seed money for Belize Education Project: Buddy Baker. He was a frequent patient at Lutheran in the mid-2000s, and many physicians came to know him well. Knight was taking care of Buddy when she mentioned she would need to transition his care to a colleague as she was going to Belize on mission work. He quietly slipped something in her pocket before she left – an extraordinarily generous check and the means through which BEP was launched. He and his wife, Donna Duffy, have been involved ever since. Buddy passed away a few months ago, and his generosity will continue to fund this work.