Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Belize or bust: Local man heads mission bus south
By Jim Brazda

Jim Ryan
Jim Ryan stands in front of the bus that will take him and several others to Belize for missionary work.
For the past five years when groups from Faith-Westwood Methodist Church and the College of St. Mary’s went on their joint missionary trips to Belize, they had to get to their destinations by riding in the back of sugar cane trucks, sometimes for as long as two and a half hours.

But the days of shacking up with chicken coops and bundles of sugar cane are over. This year, Jim Ryan, owner of Kelly Ryan Manufacturing in Blair, has outfitted a school bus that he, along with Belizean Raul Clarke and Pastor Chuck Cornwell from Faith-Westwood Methodist Church, will use to make the more than 2,200 mile journey to Calcutta, Belize on the ground.

Slightly smaller than Massachusetts, Belize sits about 220 miles south of Cancun, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula and shares a border with Guatemala and Mexico.

Ryan, Clarke and Cornwell left early Monday, Dec. 26. They had hoped to be in Belize in a week, when 18 more missionaries will be flying in to meet them.

Clarke, who received a Masters in Education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is using his education to help his countrymen rather than to leave his native country, Ryan said.

Ryan, who has traveled with the missionary group for the past two years, told Clarke that if they could find enough money to buy a bus, he would help drive it to Belize so incoming missionaries would have some means of conveyance. It is impractical to purchase a vehicle in Belize, as most of the used vehicles are worn down and new vehicles are expensive, Ryan said.

Sure enough, three months later Clarke called him and said they had found a bus for $4,000. Paid for with donations through Faith-Westwood Methodist Church, the bus has more than 200,000 miles under its belt and was used earlier in the year to send aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Clarke’s assistance is what will make this journey doable, Ryan said. Taking a vehicle across two borders is difficult, requiring paperwork to ensure that the vehicle is not stolen. Both Clarke and Cornwell helped get the extensive paperwork together, which must be waiting at the border at least 72 hours before the vehicle gets there. Clarke has transported vehicles through Mexico to Belize before, and he can work as a translator, Ryan said. The official language of Belize is English, however there are at least eight other languages spoken in the country. The most common spoken language is Belizean Creole.

“I’ve been in a lot of adventures but I think this will be as good as any of them,” Ryan said.

The bus did need some work first. Ryan added a luggage rack to the top of the bus, as well as removed some of the seats to make room for supplies. Before the journey, the bus was loaded with a hot-water heater, used washing and drying machines and folding chairs for the classrooms.

For the past several years, the group has been working on building classrooms on top of Clarke’s house. Now they are going to build a restroom and shower to go along with the new classrooms. They will serve both students, and as a place to stay for missionaries.

The group travels to Belize twice a year, in December and in June. In June they usually travel to two or three small communities in Belize to set up one-day medical clinics where they treat everybody, from newborn children to the village elders. For some of the people, it is the only time all year they see a physician, Ryan said.

They take many donated drugs and vitamin pills, with the goal of giving each child a year’s supply of vitamins. This trip, they are taking school supplies, such as paper, pens, pencils and books. College of St. Mary’s students work with Belizean teachers to teach them new methods of teaching.

For many of the teachers in some of these small communities, colleges are too far away for them to get training. The College of St. Mary’s provides them with intensive, fast-track courses in education, for which they will get credit through the college, Cornwell said.

The students are hungry for knowledge and new techniques that they can bring into their own classrooms so they can become better teachers, he said.

“We go down to help, but I think we get more than we give because they are very gracious,” Cornwell said. “They have great family values and we learn a lot from them.”