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Day Three: Sustaining a Family in Belize
I stepped into a rainbow. Belize Family Life Association (BFLA) was awash with colour, ushering in the launch of the KISS (Keepin' it Sexy and Safe) Lounge. I felt like I was in an amusement park – Safer Sex Land, maybe? The walls were vibrantly painted and bursting with information.
I slowly walked from room to room, mouth slightly agape. I barely registered the many school students who had been invited to witness the KISS Lounge launch and enjoy the day's numerous activities. I was too busy delighting in all the displays.
In one room there was a poster mounted close to a baby’s crib, asking me to consider the financial cost of raising a child compared to the cost of contraception. In another room an umbrella, decorated with a variety of condoms and notecards, informed me that protection could be safe and pleasurable. Nearby, a poster announced the annual birth rates in Belize, disaggregated by age. The cozy lounge itself featured a wall mural dominated by a pair of big, red lips. The room was comfortable, with stuffed chairs, a couch, and pamphlets on sexual and reproductive health.
Throughout the building, in hallways and rooms, every conceivable surface featured creatively displayed tips and facts that young people ought to know to have a healthy and pleasurable relationship. The eye-catching colors drew attention to solid, useful information and formed a veritable treasure trove for the meandering youth.
Punctuating these displays, female BFLA staff members and volunteers walked around in t-shirts that explained the cause of their large, round, “pregnant” bellies. The text highlighting the many myths that had contributed to an unplanned “pregnancy." One belly read, “We did it standing up,” and another read, “It was my first time.”
The males, not to be excluded, sported shirts that either claimed or denied a role in causing an unplanned pregnancy. "It was a mistake" pretty much summed it up for me. This approach was both entertaining and thought-provoking for young people and adults alike.
We closed the day by conducting a group interview with members of the Youth Advocacy Movement (YAM) at BFLA in Belize City. Many of these young people had been members of YAM for several years and viewed BFLA as a second home. "BLFA is not only for health; it’s like a family here. Generation after generation comes," explained Ryan Bennett. "When it comes to making a difference in the community, we feel loved here. This is a home for us."
I was eager to hear about what inspired this commitment. There are countless groups, clubs, and organizations a young person could join, and anyone who has done work with youth can testify that maintaining consistent attendance is often a challenge. So, what made BFLA different? Why did these young people not only choose YAM, but remain faithful members for so many years? This is what YAM President Mykal Welch had to say:
BFLA helped me to grow throughout the years. I was a high school drop out and had nothing better to do with my time than drugs and guns. I looked up to (former youth officer) Arthur Usher like a father. I never had a father in my life, and Mr. Usher sat with me and helped me list out my goals. I said I wanted to graduate from high school. Mr. Usher pushed me to go back to my high school, and we talked with the principal until she let me back in. I still got into trouble a few times, but BFLA convinced me that I had to be a better guy. They offered me a job as a lab assistant, so I’m currently in training for that. If my friends need help, I tell them BFLA is the first place they should turn.
In no uncertain terms, the youth communicated their love for their fellow YAM members and for BFLA. They took turns explaining how BFLA staff cared about each of them deeply. Whatever needs a young person brought through the door, the staff spared no effort in making sure they met those needs. For BFLA, it's not simply a matter of imparting information about STIs or designing activities to increase contraception use. Their focus is on supporting the individual as a whole: providing role models, stability, and a sense of belonging.
This holistic approach resulted in YAM members who credited BFLA for turning their lives around, helping them to reach their dreams, lifting their spirits on gloomy days, and providing them with a family. Because the organization gave so freely and genuinely to its youth, it followed naturally that the youth would return the sentiment. Their spirit of loyalty and devotion almost moved me to tears.
I returned to the hotel that evening feeling nothing short of inspired. Bearing witness to this type of work is one of the things I love most about coordinating the Youth Network. Since I had just one more day left in Belize, I knew it would be hard to surpass what I took from today. Day four, are you up for the challenge? Dazzle me!