The Birth of the Summer ‘Bush Medicine’ Camp
By Rosita Arvigo| Abdominal Therapist and Educator | Belize.
It was 6:10 am on February 4, 1998. My husband Greg and I had slept the night in a hotel room a few miles from San Antonio Village in Cayo District, Belize. The night before, we had brought Don Eijio Panti home from the hospital. He had suffered a stroke the day before and his grandson insisted that we take him to the hospital in San Ignacio so that his neighbors would know that he had done everything possible to save his grandfather, the famous Maya healer. The doctor said, “Your friend is brain dead, Rosita. Take him home and let him die in his own bed with his people.” Wiping my tears off his face, I sat in the back seat of our Toyota truck with Don Elijio’s head on my lap and holding his IV set up in the other hand. It was 6pm when we arrived at his home. Greg carried the unconscious maestro in his arms. He laid him down on his wooden bed under an open window, only a few feet from the road. Within moments, living streams of villagers came down the hillsides to bid a final farewell to the most famous traditional healer in Belize.
At 6:10 the next morning, Greg woke and told me of his dream. I had not slept the entire night.
“You and I were in this bed, and old Don Elijio was on the floor next to our bed, dying. He took a few gasps of air and we knew he had passed at that moment. Then he stood up as a young man. No wrinkles on his face, thick black hair and an erect posture. He sat on the bed next to us and I could feel the pressure of his body weight as he sat. Then you sat up. He gave you a great, big, warm hug and kissed you several times then said, ‘I love you Rosita.’ You answered, ‘I love you, too, Don Elijio.’ Then Don Elijio motioned with one hand for you to look in the corner of the room where little ten year old Gonzalo sat on a stool. Gonzalo’s face changed to Pablo, Pablo’s face changed to Maria, and Maria’s face changed to Teresa. He said, ‘Rosita, take the children as if they were you own. Train them and teach them to help each other.’ Then, the maestro disappeared and I woke you up.”
When we went to breakfast, our host met us with the news that Don Elijio’s grandson called to say that his grandfather passed away at 6:08 that morning. Two minutes before the dream!
Greg and I thought about those parting words for two years trying to come up with a plan to fulfill Don Elijio’s dying wish. I grew up in inner-city Chicago with few opportunities to have time in nature. The Chicago Boys’ Club held free summer camps for city kids, much like the Fresh Air Program in other states. At the age of nine, after two weeks in Wisconsin at a lake-side summer camp, I was changed forever by the sound of birds, the aroma of pine, and the crunch of dry pine needles under my bare feet. So, I reasoned if that was so meaningful and life-changing to me, maybe a free summer camp for Belizean children would be one way. Then we hit on the idea of having the summer camp be all about plants, traditional healing, and conservation of the rainforest that surrounds us.
At the time in 1998, we were working closely on The Belize Ethnobotany Project with Michael Balick of The New York Botanical Garden collecting medicinal plants for cancer and AIDS research. Dr. Balick introduced us to Patty Gildea-Long of the Gildea Family Foundation, who gave grants to individuals and organizations that had programs focused on “Man and the Land.” The Gildea Family Foundation gave Ix Chel Tropical Research Center our very first grant of $10,000 to host our first summer camp that year. Patty Gildea, her husband, and three children came along that first year to launch our two-week-long Summer Bush Medicine Camp. We recruited 20 Belizean children ages 9-12 based on recommendations from local teachers, and four others from an orphanage. Then we interviewed and hired a camp director, co-director, two senior counselors, and eight junior counselors. In all, our camp grew to forty people who were all housed at the old Ix Chel Farm above the Macal River.
Together, we devised a daily program centered on healing with plants, as well as songs, skits, field trips, canoeing, and fireside stories each night before bedtime. We were also blessed in those years by the presence of several traditional healers. The eager campers learned to treat sprains with an Obel (Piper amalgo) leaf, and earaches with the juice of Life Everlasting leaf (Kolanchoe pinnata). They learned to collect, press and dry common medicinal plants to make greeting cards. A few years later, we introduced head and neck massage with Moon Oil then came flower baths and massage for the feet and a red hibiscus poultice for headaches. It was a resounding success, and what we learned was that children want to be of service. They wanted to help each other and were eager to take their new healing skills home to help their parents. Everyone got a spiritual bath with water, plants, and prayers. When we asked one ten-year-old boy how he felt after the bath, he said, “I feel safe and happy.”
One twelve-year-old boy, the son of a local pastor, said on the last day of camp, “Don’t worry, Miss Rosita, I am going to heal everyone in our church with what you taught us.” A month later he showed up at my clinic in Santa Elena with a notebook. He had recorded the names, ages, ailments of his patients and wanted a consultation for advice on each one.
Summer Bush Medicine Camp expenses exceed the funds provided by The Gildea Family Foundation, so we established a 10% tithe from all classes taught at Ix Chel Farm to support this program. All classes taught by the Abdominal Therapy Collective include a tithe to Ix Chel Tropical Research Center, in order to continue supporting the Summer Bush Medicine Camp, as well. Now there have been 22 years of Bush Medicine Camp sponsored jointly by the Gildeas and all of our Abdominal Therapy Practitioners around the world. A great big heartfelt thanks to all of you!