Campus Community / People of SU

Learning by Serving

Written by Debbie Black, University Advancement

October 18, 2019

Professionals Without Borders in Belize

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Seattle U students grow to be passionate servant-leaders through hands-on international service-learning projects, like those developed by Professionals Without Borders-Seattle University (PWOB). Founded in 2009 by a committed group of Seattle U’s Facilities Services staff, PWOB’s concept is simple: connect students with high aspirations for service work with skilled trades people (plumbers, electricians, engineers, etc.) to complete small, but substantial, projects for people in need. Some student volunteers have been sufficiently moved by their PWOB experiences to change or modify their field of study. With eyes opened to the plights of inhabitants of the developing world, their rich cultures and histories, these students aspire to make international service a part of their future careers. 

A diverse volunteer group open to students, faculty and staff across campus and to Seattle U alumni, PWOB returns annually to two project sites, Liberty Children’s Home in Ladyville, Belize and Chikuni Mission in southern Zambia. A third site, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos orphanage in Nicaragua, is currently on hold due to political unrest in the region. 

Ashley Abel,’19, completed her molecular biology degree in the winter quarter of this year, just in time to participate in her third trip to Liberty Children’s Home over spring break.

“Volunteering with PWOB is the epitome of my college experience,” she says. “It guided me to my passion to help people around the world in need, and inspired me to add a Global Awareness specialization to my degree. I will be starting a PhD program in the fall, and hope to one day apply my medical research to PWOB project sites.”

Liberty is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and residence for 35 children ranging in age from 1 to 18. The children come from Belize, other Central American countries and as far away as Haiti; they have been removed from their parents’ home due to abuse or neglect, or the parents are simply too poor to raise their children and have chosen to give them up. Three of the children at Liberty are orphans. 

PWOB provides Liberty Director Agatha Valentine much-needed help with structural repair and maintenance. The volunteers create sustainable systems to improve efficiencies and save the institution costs. But the best part of each service-learning experience, according to Abel, is the opportunity to spend time with the children, playing, teaching, sharing stories and cultures, and creating kinship. It’s service that truly feeds the soul.

“Each time I go to Liberty I’m amazed at how willing the kids are to open up to volunteers,” she says. “They want love and attention, and are so very welcoming to us.” 

Maintenance costs can eat into money that is better spent on the kids. So PWOB volunteers target some of the most costly projects. In advance of each trip, Valentine prioritizes projects and informs PWOB team leaders Dawn Madore and Mike Mullen, both SU Facilities Services staff, of the most urgent needs. This year’s projects included replacing Liberty’s outdoor lighting with LED lights and adding electronic sensors to enable the lights to turn on and off automatically. Electricity is Liberty’s largest expense, and LED provides brighter light at a substantial cost savings. Not a task for the faint of heart, this project involved a lot of time spent atop a ladder in the hot sun, fending off bugs and snakes holed up within the old light fixtures. Dewayne Simpson of Lights, Inc., PWOB’s volunteer electrician, also inspected the electrical circuits in the interior of the buildings and discovered that the mysterious wires hanging from the ceiling in the boys’ dormitory were live! He took care of the situation, rewiring to remove the danger. 

Broken toilets and non-functioning shower heads also needed replacing, and the underground piping system that delivers Liberty’s fresh water needed to be located and mapped. This was heavy work requiring a lot of digging in the heat, but the information is of critical importance if there were a water emergency. Another project involving digging, permeable cloth and rock laying improved the drainage around Liberty’s kitchen building mitigating a recurring “moat” caused by the combination of clay-ridden soil and torrential downpours. A small house that Liberty rents out as an income stream also needed extensive work including wall repair and re-plastering, old door removal and cutting and fitting of new doors, manual rebuilding of kitchen cabinets, interior painting and more. 

Some projects require a higher level of skill than others, but PWOB doesn’t require volunteers to have any particular skill or experience to participate, only a desire to serve. The four trade professionals volunteering with Team Belize 2019, a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter and a member of SU Facilities’ Mechanical Shop, were more than happy to school the student, staff and faculty volunteers on the “how-tos” of these projects. It goes without saying that everyone learns something new on PWOB trips! 

“I have to give PWOB credit for a lot of the hard, heavy maintenance projects that happen at Liberty,” Valentine says. “In my opinion, they are basically responsible for the way that Liberty looks from interior and exterior paint on the walls to a renovated dormitory to cleaned and maintained rooftops. PWOB also rectified a lot of issues we had with our sewer system, and even raised money to purchase a van for us. They provided our staff with first-aid training, too. When the volunteers leave, we know a lot has been done. There are so many benefits from our relationship with PWOB. We value everything that they do.” 

In addition to the projects, PWOB volunteers help with daily chores at Liberty. The cooks, Mary and Vero, prepare breakfast and lunch for the volunteers, and in return the volunteers take turns doing dishes and sweeping after each meal. They also help hang the laundry to dry. 

Sophomore molecular biology major Emma Federico, a first-time Liberty volunteer, reinforces that time spent with the children each day is the best part of the experience.

“In the mornings, some of us walked the kids to the school bus stop,” she says. “We finished our work most days in time to help them with homework after school, play card and video games, help with art projects or shoot hoops. We would talk with the kids about their day, their likes and dislikes, their friends. The kids wanted to know about our lives, too. They asked questions and enjoyed looking at pictures on our phones.”

All of the kids speak English, and some also speak Spanish and “Kriol” (Belizean Creole). Smiling, Federico recalls, “There were several times I’d be chatting with a couple of the kids and they’d suddenly start bantering back and forth in Kriol, a kind of pigeon English. It was so fun to hear, but difficult to understand!”


Volunteering with PWOB is also about learning the history and culture of a region. The volunteers took a day to immerse themselves in some Belizean history with a trip to Lamanai, an archaeological site that was once a major city of the Mayan civilization, located in the north of Belize. An eco tour boat propelled them up the New River to the Lamanai site, their guide pointing out wildlife along the way including crocodiles, turtles, bats, and a variety of colorful birds.

“We enjoyed seeing the Mayan ruins, particularly the Mask, Jaguar and High Temples,” says Abel. “The Mayans had a long history in Belize – from the 16th century BC to the 17th century AD, and they evolved into skilled copper workers. Carlos, our guide at Lamanai, was super knowledgeable about all the history.” 

“The Howler monkeys, allspice and almond trees, wild coffee plants, giant shade-providing ferns, and many bright-colored flowers were an added experience,” she continues. “We also enjoyed a traditional Belizean meal of chicken, coconut rice and fruit. It was a fabulous day!”

We Will Be Back!

A busy week flies by too quickly, and there are always tears when it’s time for the volunteers to return to Seattle. But Liberty children know that when PWOB says they will be back, they mean it. 

“I learned in my Global Awareness classes how detrimental the volunteer presence can be when volunteers go in to a community to do a project and then never return and don’t stay in touch,” Abel explains. “It made me really appreciate the work that PWOB does, their commitment to building long-term relationships. PWOB volunteers go back to the project sites every year and team leaders stay in touch with their contacts year round.” 

“It’s these continuing relationships that make volunteers like me want to go back,” she adds. “I made this third trip to Liberty because I realize the value of spending time, seeing the kids grow up and witnessing our work enduring, sustaining and contributing to a positive environment for everyone to live in.”

Federico says this first experience at Liberty taught her the value of being on site to identify and serve a true need.

I was able to see the piles of donated clothing and flip flops that needed to be sorted,” she says. “The caregivers don’t have time to do this--they have 35 kids to look after! I sorted the flip flops by size and stored them on shelves for quick and easy access. It only took part of a day, but it really needed to be done.” 

Federico admits, “I had been a little nervous about going to Liberty. Because I’m a student, and not a trade professional, I feared I was doing this because it was good for me and not because I could be helpful. But getting the sorting done and helping with the drainage project and painting the inside of the rental house, I could see I’d made an impact even though I’m not a professional.” 

She’s committed to going to Belize again next year. “I want to continue building relationships with the kids; I think it means something to them to know you’re coming back. It would be great if one day I could come back to PWOB and volunteer my professional skills.”

If you are interested in participating in a future PWOB service trip to Belize, contact trip leader Dawn Madore to request an application,

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