Courage to Answer the Call
By Tara Sackman ’07
“The city is loud, dusty, and exploding with life. Markets are crammed in every corner between concrete buildings painted all shades of the rainbow. They have clothes, jumbles of vegetables with the dirt still on them, and of course—street food! Everyone talks fast and loud loud loud, and if you listen, you can always hear a Rihanna song playing somewhere through the chaos.”
This is how Leigh Ann Greenfield’07 describes where she will live for the next two years. After graduating from Willamette University and earning a degree in environmental science with a minor in American ethnic studies, Leigh Ann pursued a strong calling to serve overseas and accepted a position last summer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC).
Leigh Ann is currently living in Belize City, Belize and working in Lord’s Bank Village. JVC offers volunteers an opportunity to serve their faith promoting justice and peace by living and working alongside the poor and marginalized in the United States and abroad. Leigh Ann works as a school counselor for Youth Enhancement Services (YES), a non-profit organization dedicated to speaking out on sexual exploitation and trafficking issues, educating communities in gender equality, and, through training and care, providing practical opportunities to at-risk young women.
“One of my favorite parts of orientation was staying overnight with a family in one of the rural areas of Belize. A woman named Mikayla invited us to her home in the Mayan village of San Antonio, a small cluster of houses and farms in the jungle around the town of Punta Gorda. We cooked in an outdoor kitchen, making tortillas and grinding cacao to the sound of the rain falling in the forest around us. Mikayla also shared some of her thoughts and opinions as a witness to decades of cultural change and her life experience in the village.”
In Leigh Ann’s JVC community, there are four first-year members (including Leigh Ann) and two who are in their second year. While she started out as a full-time teacher, Leigh Ann now primarily serves as the school counselor. She also does administrative work and fills in for teachers from time to time. Her job changes as needs change in the school.
“It is learn-as-you-go and trust that God will fill in the gaps,” Leigh Ann said regarding her time in Belize. While she had general training from the JVC, she is also learning on the job. She sometimes counsels girls who have no money to eat, are homeless, or have been abused in their homes. While there is little that Leigh Ann can do to change the situations of these girls, more than anything she is discovering the power of sharing a kind heart, a listening ear, and a hug.
“Young women also struggle here. I work with girls who face challenges from abuse to teenage pregnancy to poverty. Although I’m just beginning to know them, I’m already amazed at their resilience. YES tries to fill in educational and vocational gaps they have, and provide counseling and support,” reflects Leigh Ann.
“It’s been a growing experience for me, to learn that the point is less my own need for continuity and an American-style work experience and more about being fully available to the needs of people around me,” Leigh Ann said.
“One of the sweetest miracles during my time here was helping a young woman decide to leave an abusive relationship. …My boss asked me to spend the afternoon researching domestic violence and survivor support. One in four Belizian women will experience violence in her lifetime, so it is a topic about which we do a lot of advocacy and outreach. I learned a lot and gained some tools I hadn’t had. The very next morning, one of the girls I counsel asked me if I had any advice about staying with an abusive boyfriend. If she had come in the day before, I would have had no idea what to say, but thanks to some divinely appointed prep work, I had the resources to sit down with her and work through the decision together. In the end, she decided on her own that leaving would be the best and safest choice. Sharing that process with her was a powerful experience for me, and one in which I felt God accompanying us both.”
When she’s not working, Leigh Ann spends time in the house she shares with six other JVC volunteers. Twice a week they shop for fruits, vegetables, and beans at the local outdoor markets. “It is a jumble of stalls crowded with bright colors and deliciousness,” Leigh Ann said.
In her down time, she cooks, bonds with her housemates, and recuperates. “I also use a lot of scented candles, eat peanut butter like it’s my job, and occasionally vent to my JVC community to stay sane. Random laughter also helps,” Leigh Ann said.
Creating and being in community is a large part of her purpose in Belize. She hangs out with the neighborhood kids when she has the time.
“Our neighborhood is really alive; people always are out on the streets. They do something called ‘hailing’ here where you go to someone’s house and literally stand outside yelling for the person to come out and talk! So we hail our neighbors and vice versa,” Leigh Ann said.
Living in Belize City also has its darker side.
Belize City is a very poor, rural area and is quite the contrast to life in Redmond.
“I was privileged to grow up in a safe environment, while most of my new neighbors in this city were not. People in the U.S. buy a lot of drugs, and that leads to a lot of violence in Central America because the drug trade supports the gangs that fill these neighborhoods. Many young people, men in particular, have limited options for employment and even fewer role models and places to be other than on the streets. They are often entangled in the gangs at a young age, and it is really hard for them to get out. As my JVC community and I sit to share a meal, play guitar, or prepare lesson plans for the next day, we hear gunfire and know that someone has been hurt or killed.”
Since JVC is a Catholic organization, all the volunteers attend a Sunday evening mass together. Leigh Ann has also joined a second faith community called Open Doors Chapel and recently returned from a retreat in which the primary language spoken was Creole. She has been inspired by the fact that the Holy Spirit is thriving in various church communities and that there is much to learn from the Belizian Christians who also hope to spread the gospel, even into the United States.
“It’s rough some days but I remember that God put me here and not somewhere else for a reason. Even if I feel like someone else could be doing this better, I have a purpose because He sent me,” Leigh Ann said.
“God is challenging me to love into the unstable and the unknown, to love as a limited woman in a limited world held together by an unlimited God, and to let that be enough.”
Knowing that my family and friends are praying for me and for communities here is a deep blessing to me.”
Leigh Ann asks for support from the Bear Creek community through continued prayer during her time in Belize. She will return to the United States in the summer of 2013.
Excerpts taken from Belizethoughts,
Leigh Ann Greenfield’s blog from Belize City
In her work as a school counselor for Youth Enhancement Services (YES), a non-profit in a small village outside of Belize City, Belize, Leigh Ann discovered a need for textbooks. Her students, a group of 30 at-risk young women, ages 13-17, were sharing one half of a shelf of textbooks for all subjects and all levels. So in fall 2011, Leigh Ann asked Upper School teachers at The Bear Creek School if they had any used textbooks available to donate. Many responded, and eight boxes of books covering subjects from math to health were donated to Leigh Ann’s school.