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Ranch teen tackles education problems in Belize

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  • | 4:00 a.m. June 2, 2010
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LAKEWOOD RANCH — Ever since Mackenzie Yaryura traveled to Belize last year, it’s been her vision to help provide a top-notch education to the children in the town of Caye Caulker.

And her friends —Sarah Stevens and Meg Rivera, fellow freshmen in the International Baccalaureate program at Southeast High School, and their friend Julia Nordhausen of Nolan Middle School — have a vision to see it happen as well.

The girls have been raising funds and school supplies for a non-profit high school there called Ocean Academy. On June 10-13, they will take their cause to the Future Problem Solving Program International’s international conference in Wisconsin as they represent Manatee County and the state of Florida in the International Community Problem Solving Competition.

“It’s a lot of work,” Stevens said. “But it really shows you it doesn’t matter what your age is. You can make an impact.”

Yaryura came up with the idea for project after she and her family visited Caye Caulker during spring break in 2009. Yaryura was familiar with the educational constraints in Belize and contacted the vice principal of Ocean Academy before leaving on the trip. While there, she visited the school to see what needs it had. Seeing an educational facility with just two shelves of books proved devastating for a girl who loves to read.

“They just didn’t have access because of the lack of funding,” Yaryura said.

Once home, Yaryura pitched her idea to her friends, and once school started, the girls got busy.

“We saw this as a great opportunity to publicize the school,” she said. “We hope other students will pick up (the idea) and take it back to their schools.”

Public education in Belize stops at the equivalent of eighth-grade here. Families must pay for their children to attend high school, and many cannot afford to do so. Many students at Ocean Academy, the girls said, are on scholarship, with more than half of their $250 per month tuition subsidized.

“They really need help,” Stevens said. “(The children there) jump on any opportunity they can to learn.”

The team began its fundraising efforts in November and already has raised more than $1,300 for the school, which is being used to pay teacher salaries.

Any additional monies go toward a program to provide free purified drinking water to students, who normally would have to pay for such a luxury.

They’ve also shipped over about 130 high school-level textbooks and other supplies to the school, and been communicating with students there through e-mail.

“Instead of just helping someone from Belize, we’re helping people we actually know,” Rivera said. “At the same time, we’re not just helping, we’re learning about their culture.”

“It makes it a lot more personal, too,” Stevens added.

With international competition coming up, the girls are elated to share their project with students from other schools during the conference and hope they can convince others to join in their efforts on supporting Ocean Academy, which is looking to expand its facilities with more classroom space.

The girls are organizing a back-to-school party for their friends in August and plan to have people bring school supplies as a way to raise support for Ocean Academy.

“It’s a lot of work,” Yaryura said of the project. “But I don’t think of it as work. I think of it as helping my friends.”

She and the rest of the team hope to travel to Belize to visit the school and to meet the students with whom they’ve been corresponding before they graduate from high school.

Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].

If you’d like to make a donation to Ocean Academy, make checks payable to Ocean Academy and mail to 8106 Waterview Blvd., Bradenton, FL, 34202.

If you’d like to donate school supplies, e-mail [email protected] to arrange to have your donation picked up.  


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