Originally Published: April 9, 2007 4 a.m.
PRESCOTT - As Jamie Bennett sat down with the leaders of Conejo, a tiny village in the rainforest of Belize, dozens of eyes peeked through open windows of the school to learn about the purpose of the Prescott woman's visit.
"I was the only white woman in a traditional male society," Bennett said of her trip to the Kekchi Maya village where she hopes to build a reliable water source for about 190 villagers and pay high school tuition and buy books for their best student. "I would like to have some help with the water system."
Bennett's background in geography she has been teaching at Yavapai College for 22 years and her passion for the Mayan history, culture and traditions led to many trips to the region.
During one of those trips, she decided to help one of the villages deep in the rainforest where people consider fresh running water and outdoor toilets a luxury.
Through Plenty International, a Tennessee-based agency that has been providing health care and nutritional help in the region, Bennett chose three villages in the far south of Belize. Over the spring break she packed children's clothes and school supplies and delivered them to Conejo's residents.
"It is cut off by a road for a third of the year because of the rain season," she said, noting that the area receives 175 inches of rain a year. "Everyone is involved in 'slash and burn' agriculture."
A Catholic church had built a small school that serves 90 primary-school students. Older students who pass an entrance exam and are able to pay $450 a year for tuition and books travel to the nearest high school. But no one can afford the expense because it equals the yearly family income, Bennett said.
The town has no electricity or toilets and residents sleep in huts with thatch roofs and dirt floors.
"The government had installed a hand water pump that is contaminated," Bennett said.
Despite their circumstance, Bennett said, she was overwhelmed by children's laughter and joy.
"The happiest people are sometimes the poorest because it is not about things," Bennett said.
Respecting their traditions and heritage, Bennett's mission wasn't to modernize Canejo by imposing her Western culture. Instead, she asked the village leaders to narrow down their immediate needs and then together devise a plan for meeting them.
"I wanted to become a long friend with Conejo," Bennett said. "I didn't want to tell them what to do. They need a reliable water source. It is about keeping kids alive and sanitation."
The reliable water system will require a new pump and casing to shield the existing well water from other contaminants. Solar panels would provide electricity to pump the water into two large water tanks that would satisfy the needs of the entire community.
Bennett assured them that the water system would be operational by August even if she has to pay for the entire project herself.
"In Mayan culture your word is everything," Bennett said. "I made the promise."
In addition, Bennett agreed to sponsor the high school education of their best student.
"If none of the Mayan can afford to go to school, they have no choice but to be a traditional Mayan," Bennett said. "To me, education makes choices."
Bennett would like to find scholarship sponsors for all students who qualify to attend but cannot afford to pay. She also hopes to raise additional money for future construction of the village's first toilets and replacing the old, wooden school building.
"By adopting Conejo I want to show by example that one person in the U.S. can make a real difference and save lives," Bennett said. "I hope my efforts inspire others to do the same."
Because Bennett works closely with Plenty International, contributions are 100 percent tax deductible. What's more important, every penny goes to the project, she said.
For more information go to www.helpthemaya.org or e-mail to email@example.com.
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