Since 2011, Ruhl (Grad A&S ’86) has been pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish, a
50-year-old Jesuit apostolate in Belize City. He contends that the area suffers the
same social problems any major city might face: unemployment, poverty and family instability,
drugs and gang violence.
“I worked all over St. Louis, and I’ll tell you that Belize City is a mirror image,
except it’s in Central America,” he said.
Surrounded by crime and overwhelming poverty, Ruhl eventually turned to the Saint
Louis University community for help. He reached out to friends and colleagues, including
philanthropist and education advocate Tom Nolan (A&S ’69, Grad ’70) and Chris Collins,
S.J. (Grad A&S ’01), SLU’s assistant to the president for mission and identity.
Collins — recognizing that “there is some activity in Belize from almost every school
or college we have at SLU” — brought together Saint Louis University, members of the
business community and Belizeans for a symposium.
Out of the symposium came Belize 2020: An Ignatian Partnership, aimed at improving
the lives of Belizean children and families by the year 2020. Together, the partners
focus on health, continuing education and development in Belize.
Start at the Beginning: Project HEAL
To improve the lives of Belizeans for generations to come, Belize 2020 began by focusing
on the city’s youngest residents.
Tina Cuellar-Augustus (A&S ’03), a Belizean native who finished her degree at SLU
after attending St. John’s Jesuit Junior College in Belize City, witnessed firsthand
the toll that gang violence, domestic abuse and poverty took on her students at St.
Martin de Porres. The only counselor for a grade school of more than 700 students,
Cuellar-Augustus knew these children needed help — but she also knew she couldn’t
put a plan in motion without a full understanding of the situation.
Cuellar-Augustus met Beth Embry (Doisy ’09, Grad Cook ’13), a former public health
administrator and researcher at SLU, through Belize 2020. Embry and her team provided
nutritional and trauma assessments on nearly half of the grade school’s students.
Embry, now pursuing her doctorate at the University of Colorado Boulder, considered
herself a background worker of Belize 2020’s trauma initiative; she worked behind
the scenes to equip Cuellar-Augustus with the best tools to help her students, their
parents and teachers. Embry provided quantitative, research-based data and resources
to back up what Cuellar-Augustus sees every day.
“Intuitively, Tina has always known how bad the situation is,” Embry said. “But to
engage donors, engage the community and track progress, what she needed was the data
to support what she was seeing.”
To get that data, Embry acquired the UCLA Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder instrument
and modified it to be culturally and age appropriate for the students at St. Martin
de Porres. Embry and two SLU graduate students, Jessica Buck (Grad PH ’16) and Monica
Kavanaugh (PH ’15, Grad PH ’16), assessed more than 300 students.
The researchers expected strong results, but no one was prepared for the severity
of the heartbreaking responses.
Seventy-eight percent of students experienced at least one traumatic event in their
lives, and nearly half received at least a partial diagnosis of post-traumatic stress
disorder. More than half of the children interviewed had witnessed gang violence firsthand,
and 43 percent had lost a loved one in a violent manner. The researchers were disheartened
by the responses.
“You look at this 7-year-old and think, you’re not supposed to have witnessed your
uncle die in front of you from gang violence,” Embry said.
Kavanaugh felt the same way, recalling the experience of a young boy who told her
that every time he hears gunshots, he runs outside to be sure his father hasn’t just
“This research really painted the picture of the person behind the problem,” Kavanaugh
said. “I realized it wasn’t one faceless person — but very acute and individual needs.”
Those needs were addressed through a series of intensive, child-focused programs,
under the umbrella of Project HEAL (Hope and Education Altering Lives). Spearheaded
by Cuellar-Augustus, Project HEAL treats the “worst of the worst” cases of PTSD. Cuellar-Augustus
and her team provide play-based cognitive behavioral therapy for students and teachers
to help them cope and learn to process emotion. While in Belize, Embry trained teachers
to implement a trauma-informed classroom, the first of its kind outside the United
States; she gave them tools to de-escalate and identify trauma-influenced acting-out
in children, rather than simply resorting to punishment.
Other aspects of Project HEAL include HEAL Academy, a program that allows for longer
school days and extended school years, giving students who have experienced trauma
the extra attention and nutrition they need to thrive. A literacy coach helps students
gain confidence and knowledge in reading. And a school greenhouse provides nutritious
food for school lunches.
While Project HEAL has existed for only a few years, the students have already shown
major improvements. The work has been far from easy, and progress is slow at best,
but Embry and Cuellar-Augustus are proud of the progress they have made. Embry recalled
a group of teachers who attended trauma management training in the middle of a country-wide
strike. Cuellar-Augustus took pride in a young boy who just a few years ago was in
the principal’s office for acting out nearly every week, but who this year only visited
the principal three times. The women have stayed in touch with their first cohort
of students, who are now in high school and are succeeding academically.
Misty Michael, director of Belize 2020, said Project HEAL is changing lives.
“A lot of these kids think they’ll be dead by the time they’re 30,” Michael said.
“So a lot of our job is to give them hope — that your life has more meaning than you
think it does right now.”
A Cycle of Growth: Educating the Educators
Hope permeates everything Belize 2020 does — and it has inspired a trajectory of education
that goes from St. Martin de Porres to St. John’s College to Saint Louis University.
Saint Louis University educators and researchers provide teaching resources, education
and training for students at St. John’s College, Belize City’s Jesuit junior college.
There, future teachers and social workers receive a trauma-informed education with
the most up-to-date teaching practices provided by Saint Louis University’s schools
of education and social work.
After St. John’s College, some students head to Saint Louis University to finish bachelor’s
degrees and even pursue graduate work. Belize 2020 provides scholarships for education
and social work students to continue their studies. Since the early 2000s, SLU’s School
of Social Work has offered scholarships to a handful of Belizean students each year.
According to Dr. Sue Tebb, professor and former dean of SLU’s School of Social Work,
many of those students ended up returning to Belize to give back to the community.
One such student was Cuellar-Augustus, whose degree in psychology from SLU came thanks
to Belizean scholarship funding.
When the Sisters of Mercy, who are heavily involved in Belize’s education system,
approached Tebb about bringing SLU’s social work resources directly to Belize in 2006,
she jumped at the opportunity.
“I’ve found if you go outside our borders, you realize what we have to offer,” Tebb
said. “But we also learn so much from other countries.”
In Belize, that meant creating practicum positions for SLU social work students, as
well as providing training for all of Belize’s social workers — essential for a country
whose social workers do not tend to hold bachelor’s degrees.
Belize 2020 also works to foster excellence in teaching by offering scholarships for
graduate work. In exchange, the recipient promises to return to Belize and serve its
children for at least five years. The hope is that these educational endeavors will
instill an attitude of paying it forward, propelling real and lasting change for generations
This year, the first two recipients of the Saint Louis University-Belize 2020 School
of Education scholarships received their post-graduate degrees. After their programs,
Melissa Mendez Valladares (Grad Ed ’17) and Rosita Rose Mes (Grad Ed ’17) returned
to Belize to make a difference.
An Ignatian Partnership
At its roots, Belize 2020 is “a Jesuit enterprise,” Ruhl said. The Jesuits stand as
connectors and mission bearers in Belize and in St. Louis — and they are often the
reason St. Louisans find their way to Belize 2020.
That was the case for Nolan and his wife, Maureen, philanthropists who jumped in when
approached by Collins. The couple became partners in Project HEAL and have dedicated
themselves to the educational aspects of Belize 2020.
Mark LaBarge, an old friend of Ruhl’s and the president of SFP Landscaping Inc., brought
his entrepreneurial skills and network to the project because of the Jesuit connection.
“If the Jesuits are there, there’s a reason,” LaBarge said. “More importantly, you
know there’s hope.”
For others, the process begins with prayer. Community members and SLU alumni embark
each year on a retreat to Belize City, where they live and pray with the people of
St. Martin de Porres for three to four days. They visit the school and parish, see
SLU’s work in the community and pray together at the vibrant Sunday evening Mass.
LaBarge credits these retreats as the catalyst for donors to get involved and spread
“The people who go on the retreat, they come back here and talk to their neighbors,”
he said. “We have board meetings where people come up to us and say, ‘Let me know
when the next retreat is, because I want to go down there.’ And we reply, ‘Yes, you
do want to go down there.’ Because it is life-changing.”
Collins sees the role of alumni and donors as providing support and capacity for Belize
so it can begin to flourish — from continual education to on-the-ground infrastructural
projects. Recently, St. Louis-based board members have focused on a capital campaign
to build Swift Hall, a multipurpose recreational center for parish and community members.
Named after Karl Swift, S.J., a Belizean brother who spent more than 15 years at St.
Martin de Porres, the space was christened in September 2017 in celebration of St.
Martin’s 51st anniversary.
While specific campaigns will develop and change as the needs of Belize change, the
mission of Belize 2020 will remain the same. Everything that the partnership does
filters through its Ignatian roots.
Ruhl credits the 1973 speech by Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, S.J. — in which
he called on Jesuit alumni to be men and women for others — for inspiring Belize 2020’s
volunteers and a full generation of people to enter into a life of service, bringing
hope and joy to others.
That hope and joy, at the end of the day, is what the Jesuits are trying to spread
in Belize — and it’s how Ruhl measures success. He says that the smiles of the young
children in Belize are what he cares most about.
“After a while, those smiles start to fade, and reality hits them hard,” he said.
“Every time I see those kids smiling and enjoying the campus, that’s a victory. Our
job is to keep those smiles on their faces.”
Learn more about Belize 2020.
— By Molly Daily