I have done nothing in Belize alone

Andy Harjula (left) with Alex, a student in Belize who is studying to be an electrician. Alex’s tuition is being funded by Dave Welch, an electrician in Canada.
 on June 1, 2018

Andy Harjula is a member of St. John, Ida and volunteers here and in Belize.

I have been retired for over 20 years. In the church, I am one of many on the “Greeter” crew. I also try to help publicize the church by supplying photos and stories about events to the newspaper. My other voluntary jobs include volunteering with the Canada Revenue Agency by preparing tax returns for low income Canadians. Last year, volunteers across Canada prepared 700,000 free tax returns. I also volunteer with the Peterborough Police Department on their Community Policing Committee. We monitor drivers for speeding and organize bike rodeos for local youth.

My wife and I returned to Belize in April for a week to celebrate my birthday and to assist a family that has fallen on challenging times. The father, Eduardo Diaz, was an electrician until one day when he came in touch with an electrical wire that blew off his hands and feet. He now supports his family by selling popcorn on the street. Our local hardware store held a fundraiser for Eduardo and purchased a popcorn popper, like the ones used in theaters. In addition, one of our congregation has donated a set of stainless steel pots for the Diaz family. The majority of people in Belize use aluminum pots rather than stainless steel because of their affordability. We brought these items on our trip, plus many other items for schools such as flip flops, soccer shoes, chalk and books.

To make it clear, I have done nothing in Belize alone. All the efforts have been because of the tremendous support I have received from St. John’s congregation, my tolerant wife and understanding adult children. I tell them I am spending their inheritance in Belize.

I began volunteering in developing countries after trying to help with rebuilding projects in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. immigration officers delayed my entry to such an extent that that unpleasant experience dissuaded me from every trying to help there again. Then I helped each winter in Ecuador, Panama and Guatemala. Each of these countries are Spanish-speaking and I struggled with their language; I felt embarrassed in not being able to talk to them in their own language in their country. Then I discovered Belize, formerly British Honduras, a British protectorate since the early 1600s. To me it was obvious that one of the major problems in Belize was that they imported the majority of their food, even though they had the climate and soils to be self-sufficient in food production. My efforts, and those of other like-minded people such as Bev Hilditch, have purchased, supplied and planted fruit trees to help Belizeans become self sufficient by growing some of their own food. In addition, funds have been raised in Canada through auctions and dinners to supply food to school lunch programs there. Initially, I also supported a priest who was attempting to acclimatize superior chicken breeds that would survive in the tropical heat.

The Belize Project has raised sufficient funds now to support 10 students with tuition fees so they can attend high school. High school fees represent 30 per cent of a labourer’s income. The primary source of local jobs in the Dangriga area of Belize is orchard work which includes orange, lime, banana and coconut orchards. In the case of the Diaz family, the new popcorn popper will permit Eduardo to make additional volumes of popcorn and thereby make a difference for his family.

I was born in a snowbank and raised out of a suitcase. I have lived in 14 different houses, beginning in Finland, Sweden, the U.S. and Canada. My career was with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, where I was invited to go to new positions throughout the province. I enjoy helping people solve their personal problems and consequently after retirement I worked with the Ontario Human Rights Commission investigating harassment and discrimination complaints, resolving the complaint and closing the files.

My volunteerism probably stems from my father, now deceased, who would go and volunteer on any works at the drop of a hat. My sister possessed a similar trait and she put a lot of effort into helping immigrants settle in Canada. Before she passed on, she immigrated to Ecuador and helped people by starting a school and raising chickens.

Five years from now I would like to enjoy distributing the proceeds of a lottery – if I won – in Belize by establishing a long-term education scholarship that would help students pull themselves up by their bootstraps to a better life through education. I would also enjoy helping additional volunteers come to Belize and experience the local life, and to help the volunteers lend their helping hands to one of the many projects that are crying for help.

My understanding of the Bible is very limited, but I like the King James’s version that says, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” The parallel Buddhist version is, “Each day try to do one good thing. If you can’t accomplish that, at least try to avoid doing anything bad towards others.” I am not perfect, but I aim for that each day.

To learn more about the Belize Project, including volunteer and fundraising opportunities, contact Mr. Harjula at [email protected] or at 705-277-1825.


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