WL resident founded nonprofit to build gardens, promote nutrition in Belize

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Linda Machtelinckx was moved to start the Belize Arch nonprofit when she taught in Belize and found that many children went to school without breakfast.Linda Machtelinckx likes to say that she isn’t stubborn. She’s passionate.

Stubbornness implies an unwillingness to admit failure or dramatically change course, and Machtelinckx’s experience recently has been quite the opposite. She has succeeded where others have failed, and she believes that success is due in large part to her passion.

It was less than a year ago when Machtelinckx, a West Linn resident, founded the nonprofit group Belize Arch with the goal of teaching children and families in the Central American country of Belize how to grow their own food and prepare healthier meals by using sustainable community gardens. In the time since the nonprofit’s pilot project began in September 2013, Machtelinckx has traveled back and forth to Belize to oversee the nonprofit’s growth and land sponsorships from both government officials and outside organizations, such as the Francis Ford Coppola resort — which has a location in Belize.

The effort hasn’t been without its hiccups, but in the short time since Belize Arch was founded, a community garden is already blossoming in the Belize village of Cristo Rey, and the word is spreading both organically and with the help of government officials who jumped on board.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: LINDA MACHTELINCKX - Belize Arch aims to help establish sustainable community gardens across Belize and teach children and families about nutrition.

“We want the project to be sustainable,” Machtelinckx said. “When I introduced the idea to the IRS, I said ‘two years, or until it’s sustainable.’ Sustainable means that the kids can replicate it.”

The idea came to Machtelinckx shortly after she returned to school and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in community health at Portland State University. A post graduate internship sent her to Belize, where she was asked to teach health and nutrition at a local school.

“After a month of teaching, I realized that some kids come to school on an empty stomach,” Machtelinckx said. “They asked me to teach nutrition to kids who had no food in their stomach.”

That painful realization sparked Machtelinckx to remember another aspect of her educational background: marketing and public relations. That was Machtelinckx’s focus in her native country of Belgium, where she lived until she moved to the United States 25 years ago.

Machtelinckx wondered if she could put those long dormant skills to work and start a nonprofit to help those kids who came to school hungry. When her internship ended, she took three separate trips to Belize with little more than a small backpack.

“I literally knocked at the doors of the minister of agriculture, the minister of education,” Machtelinckx said. “Because I had in mind to create a nonprofit to help kids with nutrition.”

After the ministries of education and agriculture pledged their support, the Francis Ford Coppola Blancaneaux resort in Belize also agreed to donate seeds and plants to the gardens while sending a representative once a week to work with students.

Back home, Machtelinckx convinced local residents Karen Paladino and Rich Rodriguez to jump on board as secretary and treasurer of Belize Arch, respectively. She had little trouble obtaining a 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation from the Internal Revenue Service, and also found consultants to provide both financial and nutritional guidance as the project moved forward.

When Machtelinckx introduced the project at the Cristo Rey school last September, she brought OHSU dietician Jessica Gutsgell to help introduce a new health curriculum at the school. When she returned in March, planting had begun at the garden, but Machtelinckx also found that irrigation had become a problem in the extreme heat.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: LINDA MACHTELINCKX - The garden in the village of Cristo Rey is growing steadily, but not without some problems, such as a lacking irrigation system.

Those issues will persist, but during that same visit, Machtelinckx’s dream was reinforced when a young girl approached her in Cristo Rey.

“Ms. Linda, Ms. Linda — guess what?” the girl said. “We have a vegetable garden at home — we have carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes.”

It was a small reminder that Machtelinckx’s passion was paying off, that this wasn’t the unattainable dream of a stubborn foreigner. Such moments are especially meaningful to Machtelinckx, because she also grew up with limited means in Belgium.

“My parents were poor,” Machtelinckx said. “We had no running water in the house. My job was to go to the farm with a bucket and get water. So I can relate to them; they don’t see that because they see me as foreign, as American.”

And Machtelinckx also makes clear that this is not a mission to whitewash a vibrant culture.

“We don’t want to change their culture,” Machtelinckx said. “We just want to add some colors to it.”

Over the course of her visits, Machtelinckx has become well known in Cristo Rey and its surrounding communities. She still stays with the same local family she lived with during the internship that brought her to Belize in the first place, far from the beautiful beaches that many imagine when they hear about the country.

“A lot of nonprofits come into those countries — they say they’re nonprofit but they make a lot of money — and then they leave,” Machtelinckx said. “When I started the project, I said ‘I will never leave. You have my heart.’”

Plenty of work remains to be done — Machtelinckx will return in September — but the nonprofit is already well on its way to making a profound impact in Cristo Rey and, eventually, the rest of Belize.

“We are planting seeds in their mind, and they are planting the real seeds in the ground,” Machtelinckx said. “Somewhere, the seeds are planted.”

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By Patrick Malee
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by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: LINDA MACHTELINCKX - Belize Arch has obtained endorsements from government officials as well as a Francis Ford Coppola resort in Belize, which donates seeds to the garden.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: LINDA MACHTELINCKX - Machtelinckx last traveled to Belize in March, and plans to return in September.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO:  LINDA MACHTELINCKX - Machtelinckx has pledged to never leave Belize until the nonprofit's mission is complete.

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