By Jerry Duggan
Service-centered leadership at a Jesuit apostolate in Belize is in Tina Cuellar’s DNA. Her mom, Alvina Cueller, was the first female assistant headmaster at nearby St. John’s College. Tina carries on this legacy in her work with Project HEAL at St. Martin de Porres Parish in Belize City.
“My mother was a wonderful woman,” Cuellar said. “Her role at St. John’s was a demanding one, but even more impressive was the fact that she raised my five sisters and me all on her own – and raised us right, too, to be women for others, strong and independent.”
Catholic educated throughout her childhood, Cuellar attended St. John’s College, then transferred to Saint Louis University to complete her bachelor’s degree before returning to her native country and working at SJC for seven years. She also has a master’s degree in counseling and psychotherapy from the University of the West Indies.
A licensed therapist, she eventually put her talents to use in an entirely new way: helping to found, and currently direct, Project HEAL, an innovative counseling and academic support program for students, parents and teachers in the St. Martin de Porres parish and school community.
Project HEAL was begun by a collaborative group including Jesuits, Belize 2020 – a group of supporters that provides philanthropic support to Jesuit institutions in Belize – and others. Cuellar has led it for the last nine years.
“It is my full-time job, and quite a commitment, but I cannot imagine doing anything more fulfilling than this line of work,” she said.
Project HEAL works to provide individual and family-support services on a referral basis to all in the parish school community who need it – parents, students and teachers alike. There is great need for these services in Belize, even though seeking such help is still somewhat stigmatized.
“People have a lot of hardship here, and life isn’t always easy,” she said. “We want people to feel comfortable opening up about their struggles.”
Project HEAL also provides SEL (social emotional learning) services to students, parents and even teachers.
With a staff of four full-time professionals in addition to Cuellar, Project HEAL also provides students at St. Martin de Porres parish school with academic support services.
“We focus on literacy first and foremost, because we have seen that students who are not reading and writing at grade level are fundamentally behind in every other subject as a result,” Cuellar explained.
To accomplish this, Project HEAL, began using an online software that provides them with a standard to evaluate student progress.
“Having clear benchmarks for where a student should be at a particular grade level has helped give our efforts direction,” she said.
A new initiative is ETHeal (Ensuring They beat the odds), in which Project HEAL extends support systems to St. Martin de Porres alumni even after they have moved on to high school.
“Many of our students would get accepted to a private high school such as St. John’s because of their tremendous potential, but once they got there, would struggle, either academically or emotionally, or both,” Cuellar said. “We realized that our commitment to our students cannot end the day they graduate from St. Martin de Porres. We are here for them throughout high school with tutoring and other services to assist them whenever they need a hand.”
Cuellar’s selfless dedication to this ministry is inspiring, but she is quick to deflect any praise from herself and toward the Jesuits and lay collaborators who have gone before her (including her mother), who have established a culture of service in Belize.
“The Jesuits have been a lifegiving presence in Belize,” she said. “They have given so many people comfort and hope, and I just want to continue the great work they have already done here for so many years in my own special way.”