"Whenever you think about Belize, you see the nice beaches and the oceans, but that picture is a far cry to what I saw, at least in certain parts. I've traveled to Eastern Europe and have seen bad places, but this visit had to be the worst I'd ever visited. There were orphanages that had just 18 beds, but housed 60 children. I can't even imagine if Africa could be any worse."
-- Patrik Elias
The white sands and crystal clear oceans are only a facade for the much bigger picture transpiring right before our eyes in the diverse country of Belize.
New Jersey Devils
forward Patrik Elias
was witness to that when he recently visited the area south of Mexico. His story offers quite a different depiction.
"Whenever you think about Belize, you see the nice beaches and the oceans, but that picture is a far cry to what I saw, at least in certain parts," Elias told NHL.com. "I've traveled to Eastern Europe and have seen bad places, but this visit had to be the worst I'd ever visited. There were orphanages that had just 18 beds, but housed 60 children. I can't even imagine if Africa could be any worse."
As the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) the last three years, Elias traveled with the charitable organization on a mission to Belize just prior to Devils training camp over the summer. It would mark the first time the 32-year-old Czech would enter the field with UNICEF to receive a first-hand account of its humanitarian work. It was an eye-opening experience that left a lasting impression.
UNICEF, which provides long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries devastated by World War II, was created by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946.
"The poverty in the town and the city is really bad," Elias said. "They wrote somewhere where the people actually eat garbage, but that is not true. What does happen though is that the people use the garbage as a floor to build houses on, so they have something stable underneath. Seeing that was pretty bad and I also went through many orphanages and the conditions the kids have to stay in over there were horrendous. Many children were HIV positive, even newly-born infants and young kids. I remember seeing one 2-year-old who was born HIV positive; images I won't forget and it's bad."
In addition to HIV/AIDS, there are numerous other issues facing the children of Belize, according to unicef.org. They include lack of sanitation, malnutrition, crime and violence and a decline of school enrollment.
"We traveled to the Mayan village which was about a four-hour drive from the main city and they have electricity over there, but never use it because it's too expensive for them," Elias said. "UNICEF has worked on having water fountains put up in the area and is also working on a hygiene project because pigs were running around the houses and residents were getting sick. But the fact they have some sort of structure there and are making progress is a step in the right direction.
"The fact is the people in Belize are living in this situation every day, so they don't see what we see. They know that there is something better, but I do think they are making progress. The people are looking at little things that can improve their lifestyles and obviously there are some people more involved. The bottom line is just because they're poor, doesn't mean they're unhappy."
Elias also spent some time with the children during his five-day stay, playing soccer and other field games.
"They actually have a program for the kids to get involved in soccer and street ball and they have a community center that they're rebuilding where kids can go and do their homework and learn," Elias said. "That was pretty cool to see."
Elias hopes he'll have another opportunity to join the UNICEF team next summer.
"If the opportunity is there, yes I'll go in the field next year as well, but I just don't want to take a risk in some areas of the world because I do have a job and I need to protect myself and those around me," Elias said. "But if it's a place that's secure for me, I'll be there. I've been involved in some charity hockey games back home for UNICEF and I'm working on a golf outing in Prague (Czech Republic) where I'd like to get a few NHL guys involved for a weekend. Everything is a work in progress but UNICEF still has and needs people to get involved."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.