100_6004: Sue Eve is pictured with students at Billy White Primary School in Belize in 2011. DSC_2412: In 2012, children pose for a photo in the two-classroom expansion of Billy White Primary School while under construction in Belize. JOHN WITH KIDS:
Using a photobook of landmarks for directions, the missionaries traveled dirt and rock roads through the Maya Mountains to Billy White, a remote village in the Cayo District of western Belize. The photos instructed them to turn left at this tree, then take a right at that gravestone.
Through terrain that was once a jungle, the 15-passenger vans drove along charred hillsides that had been farmed using the slash-and-burn method. Off the edge of the narrow path, they could see down the steep drop-off, hundreds of feet that ended at a river.
Arriving at the village three hours later, they pulled up to the school they were there to help. The school day was over, and the dozens of children playing in the front yard scattered. They returned within the hour, having run home to change into their best clothes for their guests.
Over the next week, the missionaries worked on the dilapidated school building and taught Scripture in vacation Bible school. They spent their free time playing marbles or pickup soccer games with the kids and visiting locals who had invited them to their one-bedroom, dirt-floor homes. Some students picked flowers that bloomed around the school building and put them in the hair of their females guests.
Bluffton residents John and Sue Eve had arranged the mission trip with 28 members of St. Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church on Hilton Head Island in 2005. The couple had done several local missions in the United States, and felt led to take St. Andrew's on its first international mission.
But the Eves returned home with a thought that haunted them both: The work that needed to be done in Billy White went far beyond the eight days they were there.
"We say it was a mission trip that went crazy," John said. "It takes 10 seconds for these kids to get into your heart. And they'll never get out."
During the trip, the Eves discovered that most of those children would be in school until age 9 or 10 before becoming part of illegal child labor circles where they'd put in 60-plus hour weeks at manual labor jobs in places like chicken coops or tortilla factories.
"It was very apparent that what was keeping them in poverty was the lack of education," Sue said.
It sparked a fire in the Eves, and in 2006 they founded Reaching Our World's Kids, an international nonprofit dedicated to helping educate children in Third World countries so they can become self-reliant adults and break the cycle of poverty.
The Eves started in Billy White with just the thought of helping the 40 or so children there. ROW Kids began with the schools, sending supplies and building additional rooms for the crowded building. They sponsored kids to go to high school, which costs about $1,000 a year each. Most of the teachers only had high school degrees, so during the summer ROWKIDS sent them for further education and certification.
Over the past eight years, the organization has expanded -- from Belize to Guatemala, Jamaica, the United States and soon Kenya. The Eves have made more than 90 mission trips in that time, and John said ROWKIDS is helping more than 25,000 children in Belize alone.
ROWKIDS started a medical branch when they learned children couldn't succeed in school because of illness.
"It's all about education, but they have to be healthy in order to learn," John said.
With the help of the medical team, the Eves discovered that water was the problem, accounting for 85 percent of illnesses. Partnering with Water Missions International, a nonprofit engineering organization based out of Charleston that develops safe water solutions, they had safe water systems installed in the school. The school now supplies safe drinking water for the entire village, and a medical team now travels to the village once a year to hold clinics.
ROWKIDS has multiple medical missions each year, with clinics held in the villages. Dr. Van Gauby of Hilton Head Hospital and Dr. Scott Cummings of Palmetto Medical Group in Bluffton have both traveled to Belize with ROWKIDS on medical missions.
ROWKIDS has no payroll, except the locals it trains to lead the program in their area. Sue is a retired nurse and John is a retired firefighter and paramedic, and they travel back anytime a group wants to go, and already have a dozen weeks planned so far for this year.
"I have to go see my kids," Sue said.
Several area churches have sent groups, and the Eves' church, LowCountry Community Church, takes multiple groups each year. Through each part of its mission, ROWKIDS' ultimate goal is to share its faith.
"This is all God's work and about sharing God's love," Sue said. "This is a way for us to get our foot in the door to bring the Gospel to these places."
Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.