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‘My Neighbours and Me’ offers children positive alternatives to drugs and crime

© UNICEF Belize/2008/Niles
Andrea Diaz, 11, supervises games at My Neighbours and Me, a community space that gives children a place to enjoy cultural and educational pastimes.

By Chris Niles

BELIZE CITY, Belize, 7 Februrary 2008 – For tourists, the tiny Caribbean nation of Belize presents a peaceful, sun-washed image of pristine beaches, the world’s second-largest coral reef and a laid-back, tropical lifestyle. The reality for many Belizean children, however, is not so picturesque.

Belize’s HIV/AIDS rate is the highest in Central America – and it’s rising. Drugs, violence, prostitution and teen pregnancy are an all-too-common reality for children, who have few positive alternatives. Only 45 per cent of children attend secondary school and of that number, only half graduate.

In response, the UNICEF-supported children’s group ‘My Neighbours and Me’ was formed two years ago by brothers Herbert and Ashman Wiltshire – then ages 18 and 13. In the last year, the programme has expanded considerably thanks to a $20,000 donation from the San Marino Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

© UNICEF Belize/2008/Niles
Francine Hyde, 8, pauses during a game of dominoes at the safe children’s space provided by the community group, My Neighbours and Me.

Creating opportunities

Andrea Diaz, 11, is one of the children benefiting from the programme. She lives on the impoverished South Side of Belize City, which is notorious for violent crime and lacks paved roads, parks or playgrounds.

“I joined My Neighbours and Me because there was nothing to do in my neighbourhood,” Andrea said.

Most days, Andrea doesn’t even change out of her school uniform before heading to a house around the corner, which is home to My Neighbours and Me. A typical afternoon can find her helping younger children with their homework or supervising a brisk game of dominoes.

“What I like best about My Neighbours and Me is dancing,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

© UNICEF Belize/2008/Niles
Children from My Neighbours and Me play in a wading pool bought with funds provided by the San Marino Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

'The bottom line'

As well as dancing, art and theatre, children in the group are taught practical skills such as how to use a computer, how to combat sexual violence and how to avoid HIV/AIDS. Educational outings give them a chance to explore Belize’s rich natural and political history.

Andrea is typical of many children who have flourished at My Neighbours and Me. Her school principal, Bernadine Pollard, noted that the group has made a big difference to the children she teaches.

“They are able to apply self discipline and self-control,” said Ms. Pollard. “They are able to work with their assignments, whether they do them correctly or incorrectly, so they know they have a responsibility – that’s the bottom line.”




6 February 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on how a small youth-run group is improving prospects for children in Belize City.
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