M. Gene Phillips, PE
Gene received his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma. He is a licensed Professional Engineer in 18 states. Gene…View Profile
A couple of months ago, I had a chance to take my own mini vacation. Everyone else in the family had plans, so this one was just for me – a chance to go wherever I wanted to go and do something only I wanted to do. I had given this some thought for some time and had looked at a lot of options. I decided to visit the country of Belize – more specifically, the island of Caye Caulker. This island and surrounding area are famous for its barrier reef, which produces the perfect environment for world class snorkeling and scuba diving, not to mention the sunsets, sandy beaches and relaxing Caribbean lifestyle.
While that alone would be enough to draw anyone in for a getaway, the thing that sealed the deal for me was a little different. I had some friends who had visited the island and told me of its beauty. But they also told me that while they were there, they also got to know some of the people on the island. Most importantly, they told me the story of the local high school called Ocean Academy. Ocean Academy is a nonprofit school started specifically to provide a high school education for children on the island. Until 2008, there was no high school on the island and it was all but impossible for families to get their students to the only high school options near them on the mainland. (Learn more at http://www.cayecaulkerschool.com)
As I discovered, these kids needed help improving their classrooms and enhancing their education experience. Unfortunately, Ocean Academy is also quickly outgrowing its current facility and needing to evaluate options for expansion. That’s when it hit home for me how I could help. So, with a little help and encouragement from my friends, I contacted the school and worked out the details for my trip.
My goal was to visit both the existing school building and look at a new site for future expansion. And, along the way, meet a few students that might be interested in engineering or architecture. Then, I could use the information I gathered to help a team organize, evaluate and support the needs of the school. What I got to experience was so much more.
Every moment of my short trip was filled with something special. I spent time in classrooms talking to students. I had lunch with students interested in engineering and architecture. These students spent their evenings and Saturday helping me sketch, measure and take photos. And, they even took me on a kayak trip to let me get to know their island. I got to eat wonderful food, build new friendships and enjoy sunsets over the ocean with an amazing fresh smoothie, which became a must for every evening.
Yes, it was exhilarating to travel to another country and experience a new culture. It was exciting to understand the construction challenges on an island with limited resources. And, it was invigorating to dream of what could be for Ocean Academy if given the opportunity to develop its full potential. But, what was fulfilling beyond words was having the opportunity to get to know the dreams of the students and the hearts of the leadership for the school. This is truly a special place and I am now privileged to be playing a part in it.
If you can’t find a special place to get away, let me know and I’ll introduce you to some of my friends.
(A very special thanks to Heidi Curry and her family for making my stay so pleasant and productive. The accommodations provided at their hotel, Sea Dreams, was amazing. Find more info at tripadvisor.com – Sea Dreams Hotel, Caye Caulker. You will not be disappointed.)