LANCASTER, Pa. — For Miriam Eberly, a former Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) worker in Belize, her scholarship fund for Belizean secondary students is a way to invest in the future of the country that captured her heart over 50 years ago.
The Belize Evangelical Mennonite Church Scholarship Fund, founded by Eberly in 2014, provides $200 to $250 scholarships (the equivalent of 400 to 500 Belize dollars) to secondary students who attend Mennonite churches. Secondary education is not free or compulsory in Belize, and according to a 2017 study by UNICEF, 27 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys do not enroll in school past the primary level. The cost of high school varies widely, from around $300 per year to $3,000 (USD).
The letters students send in when they apply for the scholarship share glimpses into their challenges and dreams.
“I’m the child of a single parent who goes the extra mile to ensure that I have all my school supplies. I know it’s very difficult and expensive for her. If given a scholarship, I will do my best to pass second form,” wrote applicant Jomar Reina of Libertad Village. (“Second form” refers to the Belizean school system’s second year of secondary education.)
“My goals for now are to graduate and then be able to go to Bible college. One day I also hope to become a missionary in India,” wrote Sally Padilla of Cayo.
“Some of what that these kids write is amazing,” said Eberly, a member of Witmer Heights Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa. She receives letters from Deaf students, students whose homes are without electricity, and students who hope to become doctors to serve the Belizean people one day, among many others.
When evaluating applications, Eberly said she takes financial need, Mennonite church attendance and participation, leadership potential, and educational excellence into account. Scholarships are distributed through EMM.
The number of students who receive scholarships varies each year; in the 2017–2018 school year, it is 20. At first, the scholarships came entirely from Eberly’s personal savings — she described it as “part of my tithing.”
In 2016, three of her siblings — Bob Eberly, Ruth Harnish, and Naomi Gochenaur — were also inspired to begin contributing to the fund after a group visit to Belize. Eberly said the two-week trip to multiple Belizean villages was not only a sibling bonding experience like none other, but it also brought back powerful memories of her mission service in Belize many years prior.
In 1964, Eberly was working as a nurse in Strasburg, Pa., when she was invited to a missionary training institute in Philadelphia to prepare her for overseas missions. She had already been considering mission work for a number of years, but she imagined that work taking place in Africa. Consequently, the location where EMM asked her to serve came as a surprise.
“They asked me to go to British Honduras, and I said ‘Where’s that?’” she admitted. British Honduras was then eight years away from being renamed “Belize” during the process of gaining independence from Britain.
Eberly’s love for Belize did not come right away. She recalled that as her plane was about to land in Belize, she looked out the window onto a landscape covered in green jungle, with no roads or houses in sight, and prayed in horror, “God, what did you do to me?”
As Eberly served two terms in Belize between 1965 and 1976, her affection for the country grew. Her first assignment in Orange Walk Town was at a 12-bed hospital. After a few interim years in the U.S., where she first studied Bible and theology at Eastern Mennonite University and then became a Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner (CRNP), Eberly returned to Belize and practiced nursing at a San Felipe clinic with a two-bed maternity ward.
“After I learned to like it, I wanted to spend the rest of my working career there,” she said.
In the end, life circumstances brought Eberly back to Pa. in 1976, where she continued working as a CRNP for more than 25 years. But thoughts of Belize stayed with her. Now, her scholarship fund and periodic visits to Belize are ways to express her lifelong love for the country and its people.
After four years of running the Belize Evangelical Mennonite Church Scholarship Fund, Eberly is beginning to hear from scholarship recipients who were able to graduate from high school and go on to pursue their goals. Among them is a female student who was accepted to the University of Belize to study math, physics, and architecture. Another is studying at a Bible school in Guatemala. However, Eberly pointed out that not every student is financially able to further their education after high school.
Recalling special moments of her 2016 trip to Belize, Eberly remembered meeting scholarship recipients Merari Gonzalez, Patricia Gonzales, Jennifer Estrada, and Sally Padilla at New Jerusalem Mennonite Church in Duck Run, Belize. As they posed for a picture together, Eberly said in Spanish, “My daughters.”
“Nuestra mama (our mother),” they responded, as the camera captured the moment.
Inquiries about the Belize Evangelical Mennonite Church Scholarship Fund can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.