Project Hope Belize

How it all began

In the summer of 1995, Robbie Jackson, co-founder of PHB and Sonrie Ministries, Inc. travelled to Belize as part of her role with a surgical mission team known as Life Enhancement Association for People or LEAP. After she had completed her objectives and established the framework for a craniofacial surgical mission to take Belize the following summer, she was plagued by a sense that she had not fulfilled her purpose in Belize. She inquired with her host, Habib Kar, to see if he knew of anyone else in Belize who needed help, even it if they were not in need of craniofacial surgery.

Without hesitation, Habib pointed out that there was a young man in Orange Walk named Adrian Camara who was born without legs and had to get around town on a skateboard. Robbie, knowing a prosthetist that lived in Dallas, was very excited about the prospect for providing artificial limbs for Adrian so when she returned to Texas, she contacted Robert Kistenberg, and inquired if he would be able to review the photographs taken of Adrian and then send him a set of legs to Belize.

Rob informed Robbie that it was not as simple of a task to make functioning prostheses from a photograph. To make a set of legs for Adrian, it would require him to come to Dallas for at least 4-6 weeks, that it would take $10,000 - $20,000 for components, a place for him to stay and round trip airfare. And even if all of this were done, there were no guarantees that Adrian would ever use a set of legs because at best, he would need to use crutches to ambulate as his residual legs were so short.

Undeterred, Robbie Jackson mustered her resources and in three days, she had found a place for Adrian to stay, obtained round trip airfare and through fundraising for Adrian, fostered over $10,000. Rob Kistenberg recruited a colleague, John Fergason, to assist with the project and in the Fall 1995, Adrian came to the US to get a set of legs.

Adrian’s time in Texas was profound for everyone involved. Eventually, a solution was developed that would allow him to stand comfortably in his legs as well as allow them to be adequately suspended around his waist so as to not chafe and rub when he walked.

He returned to Belize, able to see eye to eye with everyone he met. No longer was he literally looked down upon by everyone he encountered. Granted, the skateboard was a more efficient and less tiring form of transporting himself, having the option to stand tall in his prostheses provided Adrian an immeasurable degree of happiness.

Kistenberg recognized that it would be difficult or impossible to provide follow up care for Adrian once he returned to Belize. When the summer of 1996 rolled around and LEAP was ready to take its inaugural surgical trip to Belize, Kistenberg asked if he could come along to assess Adrian’s legs. The four day mission took place in June, 1996.

When the team arrived to Belize, they were scheduled to stop in Orange Walk Town for lunch on their way to Corozal where the hospital was located. Kistenberg was unaware that an announcement had been made on the TV and radio that the man who had made Adrian’s legs was coming to town and that if anyone needed a prosthesis, they should meet the team at The Diner.

Kistenberg was astounded when the caravan pulled into the parking lot of The Diner and the patio was filled with amputees. Adrian was doing great on his legs but here were another dozen or so folks in need of prostheses. So Adrian and Rob stayed in Orange Walk Town and evaluated all of the people who needed legs or arms while the rest of the surgical team proceeded onto Corozal to set up the surgery suite.

The patients’ expectations of leaving The Diner with fully functioning prostheses were diminished once they realized that Rob did not have the capability or resources to build them. It was at this time that Rob learned that in the entire country of Belize, there were no prosthetic or orthotic services available to the citizens. Even though Kistenberg had never provided prosthetic services in a developing nation, determination to find a way to provide legs and arms for the people of Belize overcame him. He quickly realized that taking impressions of the patients at one visit so that the devices could be fabricated in the States and then returning to Belize for fitting would be inefficient. If these devices were going to be made for Belizeans, they needed to be made in Belize. With that in mind, the short list of limiting factors included a facility, equipment, prosthetic components and fabrication materials and supplies.

He talked with Robbie Jackson and Dr. Craig Hobar, the founder of LEAP, to see if they would be in support of a prosthetic clinic in Belize which of course they were. The next limitation, the facility, was solved when Habib Kar, Robbie’s original host during the reconnaissance mission in summer of 1995, offered to loan the automotive shop at the Orange Walk Technical High School if the mission could be conducted during the summer when school was out of session. Equipment, components and supplies would have to be acquired in the U.S. so at the conclusion of the first LEAP craniofacial mission in Belize in the Summer of 1996, the plan was hatched so that the first Prosthetics mission to Belize would take place in the Summer of 1997.

Missions I: The Orange Walk Technical High School Automotive Shop (1997 – 2002)

Between 1997 to 2001, 5 prosthetic missions were conducted, we were managing a patient population of almost 40 people and had provided over 50 limbs.

In June, 1997, the first modern prostheses were fabricated in Belize. It took 14 days to make three legs and one arm. The amount of devices provided was not as important as the fact that we were able to make them at all. The first endeavor was a success and an adequate learning tool on how to make future operations more efficient. American Airlines had given a box waiver to the troop so that 28 boxes of materials (not including luggage) could be shipped to Belize for the mission.

Adrian continued to do well on his legs and use them when he wanted to. He also came to the US so that he could get training as a technician.

From 1997 to 2001, Rob Kistenberg and Robbie Jackson led annual missions to Belize, added additional practitioners and technicians when possible. During this time, the mission trips were generally 12 days in duration. One day for set up and break down on either side, ten days for evaluation, fabrication, deliveries and training. Habib was courteous to let the developing organization store the growing supply of materials in the automotive shop between missions. Although this was sufficient for the short term it was evident from the very first trip that a full time prosthetic clinic facility was needed in Belize.

In support of this idea, the Belize Sugar Industries offered to donate some land so that, if funds could be raised for a clinic building, the organization had property for the site. It was at this point that it was recognized that in order to own land in Belize, a Belizean charitable organization would need to be established, in order to take possession of the donated land. So in 2000 Project Hope Belize was officially chartered.

It was also recognized that if the organization wished to build a clinic in Belize, funds would need to be raised in the U.S. from supporters of the missions. At that moment Sonrie Ministries, Inc. was conceptualized and in 2000 was chartered.

Missions II: The Casitas (2002 – 2004)

From the end of 2002 until we moved into our own facility in 2004, there were four mission trips. During these trips 53 people received prosthetic services and many of the ones we had been treating from the previous years returned for repairs, adjustments or new prostheses.

Five weeks prior to the Belize summer mission in 2002, Rob Kistenberg was in a car accident that left him unable to travel to Belize. The summer window of opportunity to utilize the automotive shop closed and people who had been waiting up to a year had to comprehend the news that they might have to wait another year. One industrious patient, not wanting to wait until next summer, offered to loan the organization his three bedroom cinderblock house as a clinic site if a leg could be constructed for him.

In November, 2002 the location of the Prosthetics Clinic moved to “the Casitas” on the outskirts of Orange Walk Town. During this mission the group acquired more knowledge about their operations in Belize. First of all, and most importantly, Belize is a very different experience in November than in July or August. Furthermore, because missions were no longer limited to the Automotive shop, missions could be conducted more frequently than once a year. So in 2003, for the first time, three prosthetic missions were conducted. It was the most productive year ever for Sonrie Ministries. Next, trips were able to happen with greater frequency, a partnership with the Belize Social Security Board could be established to offer services to those Belizeans who qualified for coverage.

Missions III: The Project Hope Belize Clinic (2004- present)

Sonrie Ministries continued exploring options for funding a prosthetics clinic in Belize and in 2003, a grant was received for $20,000 which allowed PHB to purchase a house on the main street of Orange Walk Town. It took some time to orchestrate the purchase but in January, 2004 PHB opened the first full time Prosthetics Clinic in Belize.

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