By Nad Elias, Managing Partner
The Austin chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO Austin) is divided in small groups of 8-10 entrepreneurs. These groups are call forums. Every year, my forum within EO Austin goes on a retreat, which includes working sessions around both personal and professional development. This year, we chose to do a philanthropic opportunity as well, in the country of Belize. I know what you’re thinking: Great spot for a relaxing retreat, but how is it connected to philanthropy? For every resort in Belize, imagine there is at least one neighboring community living in extreme poverty. The photo to the left is one such community. The island of Ambergris Cay, hailed by Travel & Leisure Magazine as one of the world’s best islands, is filled with world-class resorts. Tucked away among these resorts is the community of San Mateo where raw sewage, hunger, drugs and prostitution are part of daily life.
The purpose of our visit was to offer assistance to San Mateo’s Holy Cross Anglican Primary School. When it comes to education in Belize, the government provides very little funding. School facilities and supplies are funded mostly through private donation. During our visit, we donated backpacks, shoes and other supplies. But we received much more than we gave.
As I mentioned, raw sewage, hunger, drugs and prostitution run rampant in this area of Belize, and they leave no one outside their grasp. While touring the community with the school’s teacher (an amazing volunteer from the UK), we met a woman who, we were later told, allegedly prostitutes her 7 year-old daughter to make ends meet. A 7 year-old. Physically, these children live in the worst conditions I can dare imagine. But there’s hope; and that hope resides at school. The school’s library and computer labs – all completely donated – are clean and well equipped. And volunteers, like the teacher we spent time with, are working hard every day to make a difference.
Seeing Belize through this lens overwhelms me with gratitude for what I have – to the point of feeling guilty. I look forward to heading back there one day, perhaps with my daughter by my side so she can experience what we felt and to be lucky for what we do have.
The experience has also caused me to wonder: How can our business really, truly contribute? Sure, we can continue to donate money. But it doesn’t always seem enough. We were told that some regular visitors to the resorts next door will often bring an extra suitcase filled with supplies to donate every time they visit. Some in my forum own businesses that can provide tangible goods like refurbished computers. But what about a staffing company? How can we make a difference outside of our business community? The teacher we visited urged us to visit again and speak to the classes ourselves. Tell them about our lives in Texas and about our careers. To truly drive home the idea that there can be more to life than what they’ve experienced and what, unfortunately, many of their parents have taught them.
This situation in Belize isn’t unique. Every island known for beautiful beaches and luxurious resorts has a flip side. Think of that the next time you take a tropical vacation. I know I will.
See more pictures from Nad’s trip herePhoto 1: Living conditions in San Mateo, Belize.
Photo 2, from left to right: EO Austin members Nad Elias, Cary Prewitt, Joe Wargo, Mike Gerber, Stephen Owen, Kirk Ashy, and Denise Villa.