When given opportunities that will change your life for the better, you take them.

If you had asked me on January 1st, 2018, where I would be from August to December of this year, the response would have been, “Probably what I’m doing now.” At the time, I had just picked up my third part-time job in customer service, struggling to keep a roof over my head and food in my stomach. Travelling internationally was nowhere close to being on my list. If you had said I would be living in Central America for those four months, I would have laughed it off as a joke. Long story short, I was presented an ad that read, “Work in Belize for 4 months”. I applied for the International Aboriginal Youth Initiative (IAYI), had an interview, became selected, along with two other Inuit youth. All of us being from the north coast of Labrador.

L-R: Sherilyn Solomon, myself, Jonathan Lidd

For the first month, we did a lot of amazing things together. In such a short amount of time, we created a great dynamic that was formed from each of our own strengths and weaknesses. We had an incredible bond, but due to unfortunate circumstances, their time was cut short. I am certain my transition into Belize living would not have been as smooth as it was, if it weren’t for Sherilyn and Jonathan. When they departed, I had a quick wake up call. They both brought their own unique characteristics to the table, which I tried to keep a hold of while I ventured on. I had to dig deep down and haul my toughest, most resilient game face to the surface, a face that I’ve never had to use before. Being hauled out of your comfort zone gives you a new perspective and outlook whether you want it to or not. By being aware of and recognizing this factor, circumstances can become easier. Being more vulnerable than ever gave me a stronger mind, a straighter back and thicker skin. Having to submerge yourself in unfamiliar territory can cause a lot of anxiety but once you get through it, a wave of pride rolls over you. I’ve been riding the waves ever since.

September is a big month in Belize, the Day of Independence being the 21st. There are month long celebrations all over the country, including musical performances, carnivals, assemblies, gatherings, and cultural expos. All of which usually serve food, especially the traditional Belizean dish: rice and beans. Having travelled to different districts in the country, you see different parts of Belizean culture everywhere you go. Just like anywhere, what brings the people together is the food and the music. Everyone loves rice and beans, and everyone loves the marimba, the traditional instrument.

Benque Viejo Independence Day parade feat. Marimba and Chatona

The Benque House of Culture (HOC) and Galen University have not only welcomed me as a part of their team but the community as well. Benque is a beautiful town with beautiful people. Everywhere you go, everyone you meet is so happy and welcomes you with open arms. The Benque HOC is a great community center where youth get to participate in numerous activities. No one is excluded. The HOC does a wonderful job at representing the culture of Belize in a positive and genuine manner. Everyone loves to attend the events that the HOC holds throughout the year. Being very fortunate, I was able to participate in all events; the Independence Day Parade, Dia de los Muertos and Finados to name a few. I was also able to attend the annual meeting of NICH (National Institute of Culture and History) in Maya Center, Stann Creek district as well. Representatives from each district attended and collaborated in finding ways to make the connection between Belizean culture and the people stronger. It was a very powerful gathering with incredible people. I also happened to be one of three judges for the annual reading contest of the Cayo district, representing the Benque HOC. To see the level of excellence of the readers was wonderful.

Dia de los Muertos celebrations, Benque HOC

Galen University allowed me to experience something I never would have otherwise, which was attending a Criminology class trip to the only prison in the country. There we interacted with the youth residents and their mentors. My request to personally interview a mentor was graciously accepted. Mr. Smith and I had an incredible conversation that I will never forget. The amount of mental strength he has is astounding. I had given him my respect for being the person he is today and for continuing to be a better person. There are many people that could benefit from talking to him.

I will most likely come back to Canada and struggle as I did, but I will gladly do so because it meant I got to have a trip of a lifetime. You cannot replace any of the things I did with anything else. You cannot buy experience in a store. You cannot step outside of your comfort zone by staying in the same environment. You cannot create a new outlook, have personal growth or develop more respect for others if you don’t put yourself in their shoes and see it for yourself. I have been ever so blessed with this amazing opportunity and I have not taken it for granted.

Cayo District, Belize

I am forever grateful because there is more to life than staying inside your own circle. There are too many places to go, too many people to meet and things to do that you cannot reach within your own comfort zone. Do not let anyone hold you back, if you like to try new things and live life with no regrets, I strongly suggest you try a program like this. It will be all you ever dreamed of and more. Little did I know, that in just four months, my reality has changed for the better. A big thank you to my Hernandez family for welcoming me into their wonderful home. A huge thank you to the universities involved and a massive thank you to the beautiful country of Belize, for letting me experience it. I will never forget it and I look forward to future opportunities as such.

Lorraine Onalik