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Salida Sunrise Rotary recently completed its first international project, creating a lush garden and better sanitation for the 250 children at St. Benedict’s school in Punta Gorda, Belize. It shows that even in these pandemic days, Americans can still help others in need.

The newly installed “wastewater garden” now filters toilet wastewater that previously was untreated and flowed across paths, playgrounds and public areas before reaching the nearby Caribbean Sea.

The Salida Sunrise Rotary and the Punta Gorda Rotary Club collaborated on the project, including design and funding. The Punta Gorda club, which is in the Toledo district in southern Belize, and local contractors completed the construction in May. Several Salida Sunrise Rotary club members had planned to help with planting the garden, but they were unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions in the U.S. and Belize.

A wastewater garden is a common method used in Belize for filtering wastewater. The wastewater is discharged into septic tanks and then the tanks empty into the garden area, approximately four inches below a gravel surface. Flowers and other beneficial plants, such as ginger, banana and heliconia, then reuse the water.

The subsurface flow system means that the wastewater is never on the surface, which reduces the possibility of disease transmission.

The septic tanks and gardens provide an ongoing, sustainable wastewater treatment system for the school, help to prevent the spread of disease among the children, and can be maintained at minimal cost by community members.

Several people who worked on the project in Punta Gorda shared photos of the project and described the process to members of Salida Sunrise Rotary via Zoom.

Through coordinated fundraising, the clubs were able to gather more than $15,000 for the project and also were able to come in under budget – enabling them to do a similar project for St. Bethel school, also in Punta Gorda, in the coming months. About 175 children ages 5-12 attend St. Bethel.

Although this is Salida Sunrise Rotary’s first international project, it’s common for Rotary clubs from different countries to work together on projects that improve sanitation, health and the environment.

Cecil Rhodes, president of Sunrise Rotary, said that while COVID-19 stopped volunteers from traveling to Belize, the situation allowed for more locals in Punta Gorda to participate in the project.

Rhodes said the club gets several requests a year for projects. This particular endeavor was the result of local Rotarians vacationing in Belize and learning directly about the needs at the schools.

“Our board agreed to help fund it,” he said. The Salida club was able to get matching funds from the Rotary district, and the Punta Gorda club reached out to Rotary International to help complete the sum.

He said that while large projects are on hold for a bit, “We will definitely look for international projects in the future.”