Dec. 8, 2016
Tucked right on the edge of the small town of Murray, the modest home Ron and JeNeane Coleman houses as many antiques as a small town shop, having taken in everything from oil lamps to a vinyl record player. Since retiring years ago, their two daughters, Mary and Eva, have grown up and moved away, leaving an empty nest.
But this semester, the Colemans’ house was full of more than just trinkets.
After spending months searching for an affordable living space with a six-month lease for her last semester at Murray State, — thanks to the intervention of Mary — Anna Ruby Vasquez of Orange Walk, Belize, found home surrounded by attention-seeking dogs, fresh-baked cookies and a few little cats with big personalities.
“Mary said, ‘I may have a solution — I can’t guarantee, and I can’t tell you what it is until I get confirmation, but I may have a solution,’” Vasquez said, laughing with her unconventional housemates.
It’s safe to say the Colemans have provided a home more warm and comforting than the typical college student is used to after years of impermanent apartments and dorm-style living.
“I have less time getting homesick this semester than I was before,” Vasquez said. “Other semesters it was like just sitting there in an empty room, but now if I get homesick, I can always come out and talk to them. You always have that home feeling here.”
Gisselle Hernandez, Vasquez’s former roommate and a fellow Belizean, said she can’t blame Anna for preferring the Colemans because she can’t make cookies quite as delicious as Ron’s.
“He’s the caregiver, he bakes the cookies and takes her to school,” JeNeane said.
Raised in a place where everyone knows everyone, Orange Walk, Belize, has given Vasquez a love-hate relationship with small towns, which led her to Murray.
“I’m a person that loves smaller cities,” she said. “And just the location of Murray intrigued me because when I was looking at it, I was reading about the Land Between the Lakes and everything so I figured that being here I would have more hands-on experience with the wildlife program than I would if I were in, let’s say, New York City where there isn’t as much nature in it. I just love small cities.”
Though her home country of Belize is the second smallest country in Central America, Murray State boasts a large Belizean community thanks to a scholarship from the Consortium for Belize Educational Cooperation that provides in-state tuition rates, according to the Murray State website.
Vasquez will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and conservation biology, which doesn’t come as a surprise after growing up in the Scouts.
“I was literally born into Scouts because my dad was the district commissioner,” she said. “[Community service] is just kind of something that was instilled in me and I still love it.”
The Scout Association of Belize is a co-ed program, unlike the U.S. equivalents. Children participate in community-service projects, earn patches and engage in survival training, and at the end, they go to camp to practice what they learned, Vasquez said.
“It’s just basically to keep the kids out of the streets and out of trouble and teaching them how to get along and how to work with other people because I feel like that’s something we need to teach kids when they’re young,” she said. “If you don’t get it from small, it’s going to be harder for you.”
Because the program is co-ed, the chaperones must be co-ed as well, which proves difficult.
“It’s so hard to get adults who are interested in being part of it, especially female chaperones,” Vasquez said. “So that’s why every time I go there, I try to get involved so the girls can be part of it, too.”
After spending years surrounded by nature, Vasquez was drawn to wildlife conservation, even when it meant being covered in mud and smelling like bats.
“We went everywhere in LBL,” she said. “I had one class where we would go out at night to see bats, and I would come back when everybody is partying at 3 in the morning, I’m coming in at 3 in the morning because I’ve been dealing with bats all night.”
The interactive wildlife classes out in the woods quickly became her favorite part of being here, she said.
Applying the practicality of her education became so much a part of her that even Hernandez couldn’t look at birds the same way.
“She would always tell me ‘I know this bird, I know this bird’ so now every time I look at a bird, I think of her,” she said.
It’s not just birds, but those seem to have a special place in Vasquez’s heart.
Outside her window at the Colemans’, there are a couple of shrubs with little red berries that attract local birds.
“I can see them from my room, but every time I grab my camera to take a picture, they go away so I wanted a way to keep them there,” she said. “So I’ve just been hanging bird feeders all over the trees and trying to do everything I can to attract them to that specific tree. And the squirrels just come and eat everything, which is cute.”
Vasquez hasn’t been professionally trained in photography, but YouTube and Pinterest tutorials are her camera’s best friend.
“Hopefully, I can get the proper training some day, and maybe use my own photography for presentations or any publications or anything for conservation programs,” she said.
Her ultimate goal is to have a wildlife conservation camp where kids can come learn through practice and interacting.
“I feel like using for photography for that will teach them and engrave it in them that if you want to see something beautiful, you have to learn how to protect it,” she said.
Before focusing on wildlife and conservation, Vasquez attended the University of Belize where she took business classes after gaining six years of experience as a teller and a customer service representative in three different banks, but her heart just wasn’t in it.
“I felt like I was just doing it because I had to,” Vasquez said. “I sat down to think about what I really wanted in life. That’s when I decided I need to pursue my education in biology because that’s where my heart is and that’s where I would be the most happy.”
In 2007 when she was still figuring it all out, she spent three months at sea with a researcher from the United States working as an intern.
“When I first got there, everyone who was going to the island had to meet at the port,” she said. “I went and sat all the way in the corner by myself just waiting for everyone to board the boat — that was me for the first couple of weeks.”
Every two weeks, a new group of people arrived, gradually forcing Vasquez out of her shell that came with growing up in the shadows of her older siblings.
“That internship is what helped me grow socially,” she said. “At the end of the internship, I felt like I could just approach anybody and just start talking.”
During the internship, Vasquez worked primarily with manatees and dolphins, but when the time came to choose her own field of study, she decided against marine biology.
“Doing wildlife instead of just marine biology gives me a broader range of things I can do back home when it comes to protecting and conserving our environment and animals that we need to protect back home,” she said.
When she returns in December, Vasquez will work in her last program with the Murray State Rotaract Club, which she currently leads, and return to her home club of Orange Walk where she claimed the title of Rotaracter of the Year in 2010.
According to their website, the Rotaract Club is an international organization for leaders who are committed to providing service to not just their own communities, but communities everywhere.
The Murray State club will partner the Orange Walk club for a joint community-service project called Navidad de Niño Beliceño that Orange Walk holds every year.
“They choose a remote village with a lot of underprivileged children and we try to bring Christmas to them,” Vasquez said. “We try to raise as much funds as we can and take Santa to them.”
The Rotaract will also provide a bundle of groceries for each family, she said.
With her bachelor’s degree in tow, Vasquez will return to sunny Belize, but she said she will miss the snowy Murray winters.
“I love the snow. It’s just something that we don’t have at home,” she said. “Although it’s really cold and freezing and I have like 10 layers compared to the regular two that people have, it’s just so amazing how the earth could produce such a beautiful thing. I know that sounds corny, but it’s one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.”
Just in time for winter to set in, she will head back but not before petting all the dogs and eating all of Ron’s cookies.
“She’s good to have around. [She] could’ve come here and stayed in the room the whole time,” JeNeane said. “But she gets out and talks to us and helps out. She does the dishes almost all the time now. I don’t know what’s going to happen when she leaves. We’re going to miss her.”
Originally published to JMC397ReportingforPrintMedia.wordpress.com