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Laid back and unhurried, the small island of Caye Caulker in Belize, seems as if it’s trapped in time. Colourful clapboard houses in an array of pastel colours are shaded from the tropical heat by lush palms. But this tiny island that’s just 8km long, is at the forefront of an innovative new scheme, which is helping its youngest islanders.
For as beautiful as this picturesque island is, it can be a tough place to live. Traditionally the children had to leave the island to go to school or give up on education altogether, which gave them little hope for a job in the future. In 2008, the Ocean Academy opened on the island, giving the children the chance to gain an education without leaving home. The high school receives a small donation from the government, but the majority of its costs are covered by fundraising.
Though rather than hold bake sales to help boost their funds, the school came up with an innovative new scheme that would not only inspire the thousands of visitors who came to their island each year, but help prepare the students for their future.
With palm-fringed beaches and a famous dive site, the Great Blue Hole, on their doorstep, the island regularly welcomes tourists to its shores. This means that many of the islanders choose the tourism industry as a career. So the school chose to launch the ‘With Purpose’ schemes – student-led social enterprises that would give visitors an insider’s view of the island and boost the confidence of its students. First came Kayak With Purpose, a tour of the island by water. Following this success they launched Bike With Purpose and then Dinner with purpose, where children’s families cooked dinner for visitors in their homes.
The Bike With Purpose scheme has proved really popular. Initially the children hired rusty bikes from local supermarkets, to help them run their cycling trips, but when the not-for-profit travel company Planeterra heard about the scheme it decided to support the students by buying new bikes and advertise the trips to its visitors.
There are now 30 students who work on the Bike with Purpose tour. On each tour, four or five visitors will be taken on a laidback ride around the island by two teenage tour guides. During each trip tourists can expect to see such highlights as tarpon and seahorse reserves, local homes and a tour of the school. And they will even be taught a few Kriol phrases en route. “Each trip is different because you are seeing the island through the eyes of the youth and their experiences,” says Kelly Galaski, Planeterra Program Manager for the Americas and Europe.
The school has now added Bike With Purpose to their curriculum so that each child has the opportunity to take part. “We run workshops on communication skills, storytelling, leadership, first aid, bike repairs, island history and ecology,” says the school’s co-founder Joni Miller. “Students also brainstorm what will make their trip unique and interesting to visitors.” The students then shadow other student tour guides until they are ready to lead their own trips.
The teachers noticed that children who were shy in the classroom flourished when they were with visitors and talking about pride about their homeland. “Students broaden their world view and communication skills when meeting international visitors from a variety of professions. They take pride in being ambassadors for Ocean Academy and Belize,” says Miller.
The tours run twice a week, but only after school or at weekends. The money from each tour is divided into two – half of it goes to the Ocean Academy to pay for educational programmes, and half goes to the student who can use it to pay for their school fees (which are not free in Belize) or put it into their savings account.
“We have received comments from travellers that Bike With Purpose was the highlight of their trip and that is very rewarding to hear,” says Miller.
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