It may seem odd that a nonprofit named Rise Up Belize! would be based out of Sacramento, California. But spend some time with founder Joey Garcia, and it’ll all make sense.
At once a U.S. youth mentorship program and Belizean education initiative for impoverished communities, Rise Up Belize! aspires to achieve a lot. Each year Garcia — who was born in Belize but grew up in Northern California — selects a group of 10 high school girls and guides them through an intensive, three- to six-month leadership program.
“They learn curriculum development, classroom management, cultural sensitivity, presentation skills, fundraising and how to run a nonprofit,” Garcia says. “Then we take them to Belize.”
Depending on the year, Garcia may take her students to Belize City, a rural town like Sandhill Village or the small island of Caye Caulker. Once there, the girls put their newly-acquired skills to work, applying a classroom curriculum they’ve developed into a five-day summer camp they run free-of-charge for the impoverished Belizean children, eager to learn.
Over the course of the week the girls will serve and teach some 100 students. Since the nonprofit’s 2005 inception, Garcia estimates they’ve served more than 100 teenage girls in the Sacramento region and 1,000 children in Belize.
In a Central American nation suffering from high education costs and low wages, a week of free education is invaluable for its children. At the end of the program, Rise Up Belize! also sends students home with brand-new backpacks filled with school supplies.
Garcia started this school-supplies initiative in 2005 after she noticed students using plastic shopping bags as backpacks the year before — poking their little arms through the bags’ handles to use them as straps.
As for the young leaders from Sacramento, the skills they learn carry over into their budding careers.
“If you know how to make a curriculum, you know how to create a training program for businesses,” Garcia says. “If you know how to manage a classroom, you can manage a department of people. Imagine learning that at 15.”
Sarah Brattin, who today is Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary in the Governor’s Office, helped organize the first Rise Up Belize! trip as a high school student in 2006.
“Not only did we benefit from being able to create lesson plans and be leaders in the classroom, it was great to form bonds with these children who don’t have a lot but have big hearts,” she says.
That summer, Brattin formed a bond with a Belizean student named Calbert, who displayed an inspiring dedication and yearning to further his education. She and her fellow young leaders approached Garcia about creating a scholarship for him to attend high school. Thanks to them, Calbert was able to continue his studies, and today he works as a police officer in Belize. The nonprofit provides scholarships to promising Belizean students on years in which sufficient donation dollars are available.
Rise Up Belize! continues to help young women in Sacramento turn into leaders and to educate Belizean youth. Garcia says she would love to see the nonprofit grow, providing more scholarship opportunities and improving education in that small country of merely 350,000, and continuing to help change the face of leadership in Sacramento.