Grade 11 student Elena Knibbe says her co-op trip to Belize has changed her perspective on life.
“(Before) I would stress a lot,” she says. “(In Belize), I barely stressed the entire three months. They’re busy there, but at a much slower pace. I found it taught me to calm down and take things as they come.”
Knibbe is a student at Toronto District High School (TDChristian). TDChristian and Hamilton District Christian High School (HDCHS) partnered to send 17 students to Belize this past spring. The students spent three months in the Central American country, participating in three work placements and two extended service or mission trips. On their return to Canada June 1 they gave presentations on their trip to complete four academic credits.
Knibbe says she felt God wanted her to take the trip and she’s glad she did. “It was really good for me,” she says. “I really felt I needed it. I needed to get away from the norm, needed to experience something different.”
Knibbe taught math and art at a Mennonite school, spent several weeks helping at a large government school, as well as worked in an orphanage. She recalls meeting students after she had left a placement and hearing from them how much they missed her.
“That was always nice to hear,” she says.
She was particularly touched by the joy and innocence of the Belize children.
“The part I enjoyed the most was just interacting with the kids, just playing with them, seeing them smile, that stuff. If you were having a bad day or if it was so hot, then just seeing the kids running and playing at school or the orphanage just made my day better.”
Harry Meester, director of recruitment and advancemnt at HDCHS, says the cross-cultural, co-op program is the only one of its kind that he is aware of in any Ontario school. He points out that normally co-op placements are done in the local community. “Any co-op will shape students and give them a very strong reality check on real life and the working world,” says Meester.
To take that co-op experience and place it in an international setting is going to be “life-changing,” he says.
“These students coming back obviously see life differently and the world differently.”
Justin DeMoor, co-op co-ordinator and communications vice-president at TDChristian, says he expects many of the students have been impacted in ways they won’t fully realize until later.
Students did things in Belize they probably never thought they would do, he says, like helping bathe residents of a seniors’ home.
“(Some of them) were helping with very humbling work. And some of the students never would have thought they would have ever been able to do that. And then for them to be able to do it and come back and speak so positively is amazing.”
Both Meester and DeMoor say their schools intend to do the international co-op program again, although when, where and how will be determined in future.
“We are so encouraged and just view this experience as having been such great success we think we would definitely be committed to doing it again,” says DeMoor.