Project Hope Belize—A Dream Realized

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By Robbie Jackson

"The 'spirit of the start' is the most marvelous moment at any time for anything, because in the START lies the seed for all things that must follow." - Louis Khan, architect

Belize, Central America, 2004

Anyone who has ever attempted to start from nothing to build a dream knows the challenge of "the start." Where do we begin? What will it take to complete the project? For Sonrie Ministries' team of prosthetic volunteers, providing prosthetic services in a developing nation which had never had any services for amputees - and taking that dream to the ultimate goal of establishing the first prosthetic clinic in Belize - was full of obstacles and often seemed impossible. I still remember the day I asked Rob Kistenberg, CPO, FAAOP, director of Clinical Services, to consider what it would take to make artificial limbs onsite in Belize. Rob's list was lengthy, but we both felt it was not only "do-able" - it was a need we could not ignore.

Impossible Dream Begins

As with most impossible dreams, it began with one person - one person in desperate need of hope. Adrian Camara, then 23, of Orange Walk Town, Belize, is a transfemoral congenital amputee - born essentially without legs. By means of a worn skateboard, or by "walking" on his hands, he traveled to his job as a laborer, stirring boiling vats of corn for a local tortilla factory. We met Adrian while in Belize on a mission to help children born with facial deformities. Adrian captured our hearts with his courage and ability to make you forget about his dramatic disability as he leaped from a chair to the floor to dropping onto his skateboard and wheeling out the door.

Robbie Jackson (left), Adrian Camara, Rob Kistenberg, CPO, FAAOP, savor the achievement of a dream as they pose outside the new permanent home of Project Hope~Belize.
Robbie Jackson (left), Adrian Camara, Rob Kistenberg, CPO, FAAOP, savor the achievement of a dream as they pose outside the new permanent home of Project Hope~Belize.

His only desire was to have a set of artificial legs so he could be on the same level as other people and not always have to look up into the tropical sun as he interacted with friends. "I want to be able to look at every man in the face, just like anyone else," Adrian told our team.

Back home in Texas, we contacted Rob, who was then an instructor of prosthetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSWMC) in Dallas. Rob said we could have Adrians limbs fabricated at the school, but we would have to do it on weekends and after school hours. Three days later, arrangements were in place for Adrian to stay in the US for eight weeks of fabrication and fitting at UTSWMC. Adrian returned home to Belize, not only walking on a new pair of AK limbs, but also with the desire to share his hope with other amputees in his country. Together, Rob, Adrian, and I began to search for a location in which we could set up a small prosthetic lab and try to fabricate artificial limbs in Belize. Thus was born Project Hope~Belize.

Solutions to Challenges

Soon the automotive shop of a technical school in Orange Walk Town became the site of our first prosthetic mission to Belize. It was late August 1996, and we were filled with conflicting emotions. Our idealism of the dream was clouded with doubt: Could we do it? Could we actually set up a prosthetic lab in a borrowed automotive shop on the edge of the jungle, and could we make artificial limbs onsite in Belize? Would we find patients? How would we get the basic equipment and supplies we needed into the country? The "spirit of the start" began to take shape, and challenges soon found solutions as we traveled to Belize loaded with supplies, equipment, and hope.

Our hard work and determination to fight through jungle insects and eye-blinding sweat paid off as limb after limb began to take shape. After an exhausting five days and nights of work, seven amputees walked away on new custom-fabricated artificial limbs, full of hope for a better future. These were the first artificial limbs ever constructed in the nation of Belize, and we were amazed! The seeds of new hope for amputees in Belize had begun to sprout, and we returned home full of plans for a better and more productive mission the following year.

Work Grows

We continued to schedule yearly volunteer missions to Belize, working during the heat of August each year because we were forced to work when school was not in session. Brave volunteers from all over the US joined us on this new adventure. Not only did our teams face tropical heat, summer insects, and passing hurricanes, but also we were frustrated with the growing list of patients left over at the end of each mission. More had to be done. Children were beginning to arrive at our clinics in need of continuing care that we couldn't provide through one two-week mission per year. We had to find a way to provide ongoing limb maintenance, with new fabrications every three-four months. We started looking for a new location for our growing work.

In 2002, a grateful patient offered the use of a vacant house for our mission site, and we gladly accepted. In February 2002, we held the first of three missions that year in the little borrowed house and fabricated artificial limbs for more than 50 patients.

To provide ongoing limb maintenance while Sonrie teams were not in the country, local technicians would have to be trained to care for amputees. Rob used each mission to begin teaching Adrian how to repair the limbs we were fabricating and how to make new amputees ready for limb fitting. With Rob's continuing instruction and by working alongside Sonrie prosthetic teams, Adrian was soon able to provide new patient evaluations, prepare new amputees for limb fitting, and make daily repairs to existing limbs, using the small kitchen in his home.

Permanent Home at Last!

Again, our growing pains meant we had to find a more permanent solution to our burgeoning list of patients. A permanent facility had to be found to house our lab and provide care our patients needed on a daily basis.

For two years we solicited funding from US corporations and foundations with the idea of building a permanent facility to serve as a prosthetic lab. When we were unable to raise the funds necessary for construction, we decided to find an existing facility we could rent with the option to purchase as funds were found. In October 2003, a suitable house near the main bus terminal in Orange Walk Town was available for rent, and we happily moved our equipment and supplies into the space. Project Hope~Belize had found a home - maybe not permanent - but it was ours! December 2003 was the first mission ever held in the facility, and 15 new patients received artificial limbs. Many more patients now had a place to come for necessary repairs, and new patients could be evaluated in a comfortable space.

In April 2004, thanks to a grant from the Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation, the house was purchased and the first prosthetic clinic in Belize was formally dedicated. Ongoing funding from LANDMARK Structures, Ontario, Canada, and Fort Worth, Texas, helps support quarterly prosthetic missions, and the Belize Social Security Board provides in-country patient support. We continue to solicit donations of supplies and equipment for ongoing needs, but prosthetic practitioners and technicians now can travel to Belize at their convenience and find a well-equipped prosthetic lab with lots of waiting patients.

Changing Lives

Sonrie Ministries provides all prosthetic services at no cost to patients, and all financial donations go directly toward providing artificial limbs in Belize. As a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization, all donations are fully tax-deductible and we welcome donors to join us on this truly remarkable journey.

From one person looking into the sky for hope to a facility now providing hope to many amputees, seeds of a humble beginning have produced marvelous things for the people of Belize. Hope is restored, lives are changed, and nothing is impossible if we stay the course and follow the dream.

For further information, contact Rob Kistenberg, CPO, FAAOP, director of Clinical Services, robcp@oandp.com; 352.262.8600; or Robbie Jackson, president, j_robbie@hotmail.com; 817.461.9573.

Financial donations may be sent to Sonrie Ministries Inc., P.O. Box 120212, Arlington, TX 76012.

Robbie Jackson is President, Sonrie Ministries Inc.