Seattle University women’s soccer head coach Julie Woodward alongside two of her student-athletes, Stephanie Verdoia (Salt Lake City, Utah) and Renae Russell (Lake Forest, Calif.), traveled to Belize over Spring Break for a service trip sponsored by Seattle U’s Professionals Without Borders (PWOB). Furthering Seattle U’s mission of educating the whole person, the group helped those in need at Liberty Children’s Home, an orphanage currently housing 28 children who were abandoned, abused, or afflicted with HIV from the ages of four to 14 years old.
This was the third year in a row that PWOB journeyed to work with Liberty Children’s Home, building upon and repairing water filtration systems they had previously built during past trips. The filtration systems have allowed residents to repurpose laundry water for use in the garden and to clean pig pens, which helps provide food for the children. The team also helped add security improvements to the home.
Renee Vandermause (Madison, Wisc.), who played her final season with the SU women’s soccer team in 2012, has also previously been involved in PWOB trips, including trips to Nicaragua and Zambia, and past trips to Belize.
As it was the first trip of this kind for all three, their experience was unforgettable and can only best be told in their own words. The following are first-hand accounts from Woodward, Verdoia, and Russell.
JULIE WOODWARD: “Our service trip to Belize was an amazing, humbling, and beautiful experience. Being able to share it with Steph and Renae was extremely special and continued to remind me what a great place Seattle U is, not just for student athletes, but our campus community as a whole. We were able to help others, meet some wonderful people and experience another country’s culture. It is something I will never forget.”
STEPHANIE VERDOIA: “The mission of Professionals Without Borders is to ‘empower students to serve and lead sustainable service projects that help people in need’. Seattle University facilities employees lead groups of students around the world to make these projects happen. Ten of us made the trip down to Belize including three facilities employees, Coach Woodward, an employee from admissions, and five students. We worked at an orphanage called Liberty Children's Home, a place where Professionals Without Borders has made several trips. Our main goal was to fix the gutters on their school building, but we also temporarily fixed a leak in their boys’ dormitory. Professionals Without Borders is an organization that takes pride in creating strong relationships with the people they help, and finishing the jobs they start.
While in Belize we got a few days to explore and see the sights, but undeniably the best part of my experience was spending time with the children at Liberty. At the beginning of the trip I expected to feel some strong emotions while working at an orphanage in a relatively poor country. I definitely did, but they were opposite of what I expected. I did not worry or get upset but instead I was overwhelmed with happiness and affection. I felt this way because the environment that Liberty has created is welcoming and warm. This amazing group of kids showed me how to move past hard times in life and what family truly means. The children look after one another and treat each other as brothers and sisters, and are surrounded by caregivers and staff that love them and always want the best for them. The kids were truly happy no matter what circumstances put them there. They were a special kind of family, and they made us feel like we were a part of it.
Being a part of the soccer team at Seattle University has allowed me to create my own unique family up in Seattle. My teammates are like my sisters, and I cherish every moment I get to spend with them on and off the field. The children at Liberty reminded me that no matter what obstacles you face in life, the people that help you through them are the most important. Thanks to Professionals Without Borders I not only explored a new country, but I was reminded of the priorities I want to uphold throughout my life.”
RENAE RUSSELL: “Going to Belize was an amazing experience that I will remember forever. Being at the Liberty Children's Home and playing with the kids was definitely eye-opening. The kids there have a lot less than what we have here in America, yet everyday they would be outside playing with huge smiles on their faces. Our group stayed overnight at the orphanage for the first two nights and then we moved to a house down the street for the remainder of our stay. We slept in one of the dorms that was across from the kids dorms, and I will never forget the second night, when we could hear the kids singing Miley Cyrus' ‘The Climb’ and Michael Jackson's ‘Man In The Mirror’. It helped me to realize that we do not need much to be happy. The main reason for our trip was to take down the old rusted gutters on one of the buildings and put new ones up. The gutters emptied the water into water storage tanks until they needed it. It felt so good when we finished, knowing that we contributed to helping the children's home. While we were working some of the kids would come over and help hand us tools and just hang out. We had a lot of time where we could play with the kids around the orphanage and we learned so much about each of them individually. When it came time to say goodbye to them at the end of the trip, we found ourselves at a loss for words; we could not express how much we were going to miss them and how much of an impact they had on us. The kids were wonderful and they all found ways to touch our hearts.
There were also a few days where we were able to go experience some tourist attractions in Belize. On the first day, we visited the Mayan temples, and we spent the second day at the island Caye Caulker, where the water was crystal clear. One of the nights, the lady that runs the orphanage invited us to her beach house, which was absolutely amazing. Her house did not have electricity or running water, which was another new experience for me. On our last full day in Belize we went on a three-mile hike in a cave where we climbed up waterfalls and jumped down them into large pools of water; as scary as it was, I would most definitely do it again!
Overall, Belize was absolutely amazing and I am so glad that I got to go. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to go again next year because I miss it already.”