Belize high school ‘thrilled’ to compete in Penn Relays for fourth time

James Cordice, the pioneer and coordinator of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ participation in the prestigious Penn Relays at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, addresses reception for Vincentian and Belizean athletes at the Calabash Restaurant and Lounge on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia in April 2019.
Photo by Nelson A. King

Gary Francisco, head coach of the Stann Creek Ecumenical College (SCEC), the only high school in Belize competing in the prestigious Penn Relays in Philadelphia, says he is “thrilled” to be competing, for the fourth time this year, in the Relays Carnival.

“This event holds immense significance for us, as it provides a platform for our athletes to showcase their talents on an international stage,” Francisco told Caribbean Life exclusively on Thursday about the meet that takes place from April 25-27 at the Franklin Field Stadium, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“For us, participating in the Penn Relays is not just about competing; it’s about realizing a dream and uncovering athletic gems in Belize,” he added. “Year after year, we defy the odds and make our mark, demonstrating that talent knows no boundaries. Our journey to the Penn Relays is a testament to the dedication and hard work of our athletes, coaches and supporters back home.”

However, while their passion and determination drive them forward, Franciso said they cannot ignore the challenges they face as a school in Southern Belize.

“Limited resources and minimal support often hinder our efforts to fully develop our athletic program,” he said. “As the head coach, I envision a future where our program thrives, where our athletes have access to top-notch training facilities, equipment and coaching.”

To achieve this vision, Franciso urged potential sponsors and supporters to join them in their mission.

“Your contribution can make a significant impact in the lives of these young athletes, providing them with opportunities they might never have dreamed of,” he said. “Together, we can empower the next generation of Belizean athletes and inspire hope within our community.”

Franciso expressed “heartfelt gratitude” to Vincentian-born James Cordice and the Philadelphia-based Team SVG International, Inc. for their “unwavering support over the years”, stating that they have been “instrumental” in their journeys to the Penn Relays.

“From ensuring our meals to providing transportation and hospitality, they have gone above and beyond to make our experience unforgettable,” he said. “We are truly grateful for their generosity and kindness.

“As we gear up for another exciting chapter at the Penn Relays, we carry with us the hopes and dreams of our entire community,” he added. “With your support, we can continue to defy expectations and pave the way for a brighter future for Belizean athletics.”

Assistant coach and teacher Olivett Louise Ramos also told Caribbean Life on Thursday that she was “enthusiastic about this great journey.”

She said some of the athletes have been training for an entire year, while others joined subsequently.

“The students are propelling me because I always want what’s best for them,” Ramos said. “This is a great opportunity for them to cement a better future for themselves and their families by extension, pave the way for other young people in our community, and demonstrate how barriers can still be broken with many limitations. I go the extra mile for my students.”

Belizean Alex Colon (l) and Myrick Francis beat drums, and Belize athletes (in background) pay tribute in song, with "You can go, but you must come back," to Aurelio Martinez, a renowned Garifuna artist from Honduras, at a reception in Philadelphia in April 2019 for Belizean athletes at the Penn Relays.
Belizean Alex Colon (l) and Myrick Francis beat drums, and Belize athletes (in background) pay tribute in song, with “You can go, but you must come back,” to Aurelio Martinez, a renowned Garifuna artist from Honduras, at a reception in Philadelphia in April 2019 for Belizean athletes at the Penn Relays. Photo by Nelson A. King

She disclosed that SCEC athletes had a “more challenging experience last year: The journey was very costly; the only running track is three hours away from our town; we arrived in Philadelphia less than 24 hours before their running time; yet our students did their best regardless of any circumstances.”

This year, Ramo said: “We intensified the workout and utilized more of what’s readily available to us in terms of facilities.

“We had a trainer from the city, who came weekly to assist with training,” she added. “The investment financially, physically, morally and even health-wise has increased to a great extent. All this was possible because of God, our athletes themselves, their families, Mr. James Cordice, our Ecumenical family, the coaches, the business in our country, and our community members.

“This year, students are even more prepared, and it will be evident in their performances,” Ramos continued.

SCEC Principal Ray Adolphus Lawrence, Sr., told Caribbean Life that “the Penn Relays for us is a metaphor for the opportunities that await our student-athletes once they persevere to the finish line.

“Every competitor ahead of them is symbolic of a reward they can capture if only they push a little harder,” he said. “The baton reminds us of the need to connect with our brothers and sisters to share our knowledge and skills, and support each other, so that all complete the journey successfully.”

Lawrence said SCEC – located in Dangriga Town, Stann Creek District, Southern Belize – is “truly grateful to be afforded this opportunity to have our students engage in this wonderful experience.

“We sincerely thank Mr. James Cordice and SVG International Support, Inc. for their continued support and great hospitality,” he said.

“We are also grateful to our local sponsors, parents of the athletes, and the school’s management team for their support of initiatives like the Penn Relays that promote sports as an economic vehicle and developmental tool,” Lawrence added.

Vincentian Olympian Brandon Valentine-Parris – who competed for the Thomas Saunders Secondary School in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the 2011 and 2012 Penn Relays – had encouraging words for the Belizean athletes.

He said those games were “the initial flame that fueled my passion for competition.”

He said they inspired him to pursue an athletic scholarship in the US, “which ultimately led to a remarkable collegiate career.”

“Becoming an Olympian, 11-time CIAA Champion, 15-time NCAA All-American, and NCAA champion were all fruits of that initial involvement at the Penn Relays,” said Valentine-Parris, head track & field coach at Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, NC.

“Now, as a high school head coach, I’m giving back to the sport that shaped me,” he added. “I’m incredibly grateful for the unwavering support of fellow Vincentians, particularly James Cordice, who supported me financially and mentally through college.

“My participation at the Penn Relays not only shaped my athletic future but also molded me into the person I am today as a proud Vincentian,” Valentine-Parris continued.