Bringing Medical Care
to Remote Mayan Communities

Written by Erin Walsh

Twenty-six years ago, NCU faculty member Dr. Bruce McNellie observed a line of obviously pregnant women stretching around the block, waiting in the cold rain to receive limited, state-offered prenatal care. "I was working in Child Protective Services at the time, but I was motivated to help these women," reveals McNellie.

Bruce McNellie (Ph.D., Adjunct Faculty, School of Psychology)

He decided to pursue a Rural Federal Health Care grant to provide prenatal and obstetrical care in the rural community of Nacogdoches, Texas. With the help of friends at other agencies, the grant was written and secured and, in 1987, The East Texas Community Health Clinic opened its doors.

"It was a huge feat," acknowledges McNellie. Naturally, the group decided to celebrate by going on a retreat to Belize. While many are drawn to Belize for its beautiful beaches, great snorkeling and fabulous resorts, McNellie and his partners had something else in mind.

"We learned that volunteers were needed in the Mayan Indian reservations of the Toledo District of Belize," he notes. "A group of 21 of us, including doctors, dentists, nurses, social workers, friends and family members, traveled to Belize and held dental clinics in these remote Mayan villages."

While it wasn’t easy to get to all those who needed treatment since the terrain in the Toledo District is hilly with lush jungle, and the accommodations were seriously lacking, those five days of clinics significantly outweighed any discomfort.

"We treated 1,500 dental patients who most likely would not have been treated without us," shares McNellie.

After returning to the United States, the core group incorporated as the non-profit Project Belize, Inc. (projectbelize.org) with the mission of making annual trips to Belize to provide critically needed dental and medical care, with a focus on serving the most remote jungle villages. With McNellie as project coordinator, they have returned every year.

"What originally began as a reaction to pregnant women standing in line in the rain has led to the creation of a large and active health clinic and to 25 years of clinics in Belize,” observes McNellie.

The group visits 10 villages during the course of each year's trip, and sometimes uses mules to carry medical supplies. In recent years, accommodations have improved to small screened cabins provided through arrangements with the International Zoological Expedition, Blue Creek Village. The cabins have electricity, but the volunteers must still bathe in the river and the drives and subsequent hikes take hours.

Nonetheless, Project Belize is self-funded each year by the participants who embrace the opportunity to make a difference. In fact, all donations go directly to the purchase of medical supplies for each year’s trip, but all administrative costs of the group are covered by its members.

Dr. McNellie and the rest of the Project Belize volunteers are always looking for others who may be interested in participating in one of the annual trips. To volunteer or learn more, you can contact McNellie at mcnellie@mcnellie.com or visit projectbelize.org.