Former Professor, Alumni Empower Belizean Youth with Communication Skills

The room buzzed with the sound of excited campers. The 25 youths whispered and giggled as they waited for their turn to show the public service announcements they created.

The young filmmakers were campers at Youth Media Belize, a group backed by the United Nations Children's Fund. The camp was intended to give youth, ages 13 to 20, communication and journalism knowledge.

The director of the program is Belizean native Holly Edgell, a former Missouri School of Journalism professor. Edgell, who works as a regional editor for Patch, recruited two of her former students to join the Youth Media Belize team - Geraldine Cols, BJ '06, a producer of a local Hispanic news station, and Maral Usefi, BJ '04, a senior broadcast producer for CNN's Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien.

"Our mission is to empower these youth with communication skills, to help them realize their voices can and should be heard," Usefi says, "especially those children who may not have similar opportunities otherwise."

Belize Journalistic Background

The Youth Media Belize grew out of a workshop designed to educate professional adult journalists in Belize.

Map of Belize
Belize has an open, free-press system, but no universities in Belize offer a journalism program. Source: Dateline Belize Facebook.

Unlike other Central American countries, Belize has an open, free-press system, but no universities in Belize offer a journalism program. Those interested pursue higher education in countries such as the United States and Jamaica.

Belize has a population of 321,115, and, of citizens older than 15, 76.9 percent are literate. Edgell was aware of the journalism and educational environment in Belize because she frequently visits relatives there.

With her journalism background, Edgell decided to help improve journalism in Belize by extending educational opportunities for reporters and editors. She conducted a survey to see if Belizean journalists would be interested in such a program and what training they felt would be beneficial.

Survey results showed a strong desire from Belizean journalists to receive training in social media and investigative techniques. She approached the University of the West Indies Extension in Belize with these results, and they created a weeklong workshop called "Dateline Belize." Local journalists from the area were invited to attend the instructional classes.

Youth Media Belize Development

The success of "Dateline Belize" caught the attention of The United Nations Children's Fund. The group wanted to combine Edgell's journalism education efforts with its own mission to promote fundamental children's rights by going directly to the source of the Belize's journalistic future: the country's youth. The group offered Edgell a grant to fund a camp.

Map of Belize
The Belize Youth Media Group: From left, Rhazi Kone, Aurelio Sho, Leonardo Melendez, Holly Edgell, Christoper Saunders, Geraldine Cols, Maral Usefi. Photo: Courtesy of Holly Edgell.

Edgell invited three former students to join the Youth Media Belize team - Geraldine Cols, BJ '06, a producer of a local Hispanic news station; Maral Usefi, BJ '04, a senior broadcast producer for CNN's Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien; and Christopher Saunders, MA '11, a broadcast journalist from the Bahamas.

Edgell began recruiting Missouri alumni and Belizean journalists to help instruct the campers.

For Edgell, asking Cols, Usefi and Saunders to join was a natural choice.

"Geraldine worked with the professional journalist training program in 2010 and did a great job," Edgell says. "She's smart, social media savvy, and has international experience in journalism. "Chris, coming from the Bahamas, was great as a cultural touchstone for the children who were thrilled to meet a journalist from another part of the Caribbean. And I've always wanted to work with Maral, a person with more of the national journalism experience, which is a great perspective to bring."

Edgell said all three rolled up their sleeves to help teach concepts, motivate and provide hands-on training.

Rounding out the team were Belizean media professionals: photographer Leonardo Melendez; Aurelio Sho, a radio journalist, who was a student at the professional workshop in 2010; and Nyasha Laing, a documentary producer who works with Belizean youth.

UNICEF social media expert Rhazi Kone, based in New York, worked with Cols to help orient and teach the students how to use Facebook.

Camp Begins

Edgell had planned an active schedule for the campers consisting of hands-on training in social media, news-writing platforms, videotaping fundamentals, laptop usage, radio production and editing. Missouri alumni and Belizean journalists would instruct sessions in their own areas of expertise. For the first three days, the campers would spilt into small groups and receive a hands-on lesson on one of these topics from an instructor. Once they learned all the skills, they began work on a video project.

Youth Belize Student Teams
Youth Belize Student Teams
Youth Belize student teams create PSA's. Student create PSA's that air in Belize from the skills they learn at the weeklong camp.

Because UNICEF wanted the week to focus on youth issues, Edgell gave the campers the task of writing and visualizing public service announcements that drew attention to a fundamental right of children. Working on the video would help the campers learn how to use their voices to defend children just like themselves.

Usefi was unsure what to expect as the week was approaching.

"I did not know what the kids would be like or what challenges we would face teaching the kids, several of whom had little to no exposure to this type of computer technology," she says.

Cols says Usefi's prediction was right. Most of the students, regardless of age, struggled at first with making the PSAs. They had little previous exposure to technology, such as how to use video cameras and editing software, and basically had one day to learn the skills.

Usefi, who was in charge of teaching videography, related to the challenges the teens faced using the new equipment based on her time at the J-School.

"It's about learning the technology for the first time, then also learning how to use it to tell a story. I definitely saw the same frustrations, I experienced, which really helped me understand how to help them fix those frustrations," she says.

The Missouri alumni specifically taught the campers about the shooting principles of making a sequence and capturing the right angle, Cols says.

"Literally everything we were taught in the broadcast sequence about how to shoot we brought back to teach these kids," Usefi says.

Reaping the Benefits

A public service announcement reveal party was planned at the end of the week. All the students and instructors gathered together, and each group explained the inspiration behind its video and watched the other groups' completed work for the first time. This was Col's favorite part of the week.

Youth Media Belize: Every Child Deserves a Home 1 (PSA)

"It was so rewarding to show them what they had done and accomplished, to see them think, 'I made that. I had a part of that,' was the best," she says.

Cols hopes that the youth will use the skills they learned to acquire internships or apprenticeships with journalists in Belize and build professional relationships.

If the success and positive feedback from the two camps continue, the group's leaders believe there is potential for a journalism program to be established at a university in Belize.

Ultimately, Usefi feels the work is important because it shows youth that technology skills can give them power.

"They realized even though they are teenagers, they are the next in charge, and they can create change in Belize," Usefi says. "They left the camp wanting to continue to use their voices."