Stratford Goes to Belize

The trip to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich took the students and teachers an hour and a half by bus through the Belize River Valley.

Getting to the site required the bus to be ferried across the Mopan River on a hand-cranked barge.

Once the group arrived, the students explored the ancient city as their local guide led them through the ruins of palaces, temples, and even a ball court.  Climbing 130 feet to the top of largest pyramid — El Castillo — the students could see over the border into Guatemala.

The trip to Xunantunich was just one part of a 10-day journey this summer that took 20 Stratford students and four teachers through the rainforests, cities, and islands of the Central American nation of Belize.  Accompanied by Mr. Luke Harrington, Ms. Eleanor Marie McDavid, Mr. Ross Bridges, and Ms. Jackie Waters, the students studied the culture, ecology and natural history of Belize during their trip, which departed from Atlanta International Airport on June 4.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was everything I could have hoped for and more. I honestly had one of the best times of my life,” senior Laurel Ferrari said.  “I think the most surprising part was the food. I was a bit afraid that I wasn’t going to like it, but I enjoyed every single meal I had there. Everything was really delicious and well made.”

The Belize trip marked the revival of a study abroad program that had been dormant for many years.

The leader of the summer expedition was upper school science teacher Ms. Jackie Waters, who taught at Stratford during the 1990’s and returned to Stratford two years ago to teach physiology and biology.  Waters, who lived in Belize from 1997 to 1998, said she discussed bringing the trip back when she interviewed to return to the school.

“Mrs. Brogdon had really been wanting to bring back our study abroad program because she thought it was an aspect of Stratford that set us apart from other schools,” Waters said.  “The trip to Belize is mainly for the cultural experience. We want to take Stratford students out of their lifestyle and into other parts of the world where the lifestyle is completely different.”

Upon arrival, the students — including 18 rising seniors and two rising juniors — immediately saw major differences between their own standard of living and that of the Belizeans. Belize has a population of about 32,000 and relies on oil exports, agriculture, and tourism as its main source of income. Although surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries, Belize is a former British colony in which most people speak English as their first language, and the Belize education system also teaches in English.

“At first the students were shocked by what appeared to be pDSC02758overty, but once they got to know the people and saw how happy and content the Belizeans were with what they had, their attitudes changed. They learned to appreciate how the Belizeans were happy without big houses and fancy cars and the students respected that,” said Waters, who served as the liaison between the school and the local Belizeans.

The group spent the first 7 days in the rainforest, where they housed at the Lodge at Chaa Creek, which is located in the middle of a 365-acre nature preserve. The group spent the last 3 days of the journey on an island off the coast of Belize.

In the rainforest, the students walked the Panti Medicinal Trail; hiked to the Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm; got up for early morning bird watching; canoed on the Macal River; visited the Rio Frio caves and waterfall; and toured the Belize Zoo.  When the students stayed on the coast, they snorkeled, kayaked, and played volleyball to wind down.

“One of my favorite parts of the trip was snorkeling in the beautiful coral reef. That was the first time I had seen so many fish in their natural habitat. You really felt like you were in a completely different world,” senior Joseph Slappey said.

The students also did community service at Calla Creek School — which the students reached by crossing a rope bridge — bringing supplies and games like drawing chalk and liquid bubbles to the students.  They played games like soccer and jump rope with the kids — most of whom were of lower school age.

The students concluded the visit by singing their national anthems for another — the Belizean children singing “Land of the Free” and the Stratford students singing the “Star Spangled Banner.”

“I was most surprised that the kids loved the Calla Creek School so much. It was so heartwarming. The students exceeded my expectations by miles,” Waters said. The Stratford group took school supplies and games to share with the children.

The Belize trip represented a fresh start for Stratford’s study abroad.  The school offered trips in years past, but stopped these programs when the school discontinued its short courses, also called the “minimester.”

“Minimester was a two week period in which teachers would direct an independent study with their students, and I always took my students on a trip,” Waters said.

The Stratford students kept a daily journal, and were expected to study a specific topic ranging from coral reef bleaching to the flowers of Belize. Each then used this knowledge to deliver a 10-minute presentation to students and faculty last month.

The Belize trip is being offered again this summer.  Like last year, Waters expects to take take 20 students and the same four teachers who went on this year’s trip: Waters, Mr. Ross Bridges, Mr. Luke Harrington, and Ms. Eleanor Marie McDavid.