A Little Piece of Heaven

We packed our bags and set off on our journey to San Felipe. We stayed in San Felipe for a week and during our time there we had the opportunity to do various volunteer jobs and work with many inspiring people. There was one day in particular that touched our hearts, all in different ways. We went to an orphanage, Casa De Fe- which means Home of Faith. There are 9 little girls who live in this house, ages 2-11, all with touching stories of how they got there. From the moment we walked through the gate the kids were taking our hands and welcoming us. They played with us, sang to us, and enjoyed wearing our sunglasses and taking pictures of themselves with our cameras. They were like any other little girls in the world, with their hair in little braids and wearing immense amounts of pink. They were in a place where they were happy; it was kind of like their own little piece of heaven, a place where they could be kids and do what kids do. Each little girl living at Casa De Fe had a smile that could brighten anyone’s day and a laugh that sounded like the most magical music in the world. There was nothing else we could have imagined doing on that sunny day, it was the perfect way to spend it. After hanging out some laundry and doing some yard work we spent our day playing soccer, swinging on the swings, and helping the little ones go down the slide. It felt like we were kids again ourselves.

Casa De Fe truly felt like a home, and all these little girls were sisters at heart. It was such a happy place to be and even though it is an orphanage, it’s a home for them and a place of serenity and security, something they never had before. Despite the past violence, abuse and neglect these little girls have gone through all their lives, they were happy and smiling; they soon became the toughest, bravest, little people I knew. It made me sad to think that no one wanted these precious children and their parents didn’t bother to try as hard as they could to be able to be there for them. Parents, the people who should be there for you through the thick and thin and always be the two people who will never let you down, but these little girls were let down by theirs. They will never have the relationship they should have with their biological parents and some may never even get the opportunity to meet them.

One adorable little girl had a story so heartbreaking it was hard not to tear up when I heard it. This little two year old girl came to Casa De Fe when she was just one year old. Her parents did not treat her how a little baby should be treated; she did not receive the nurturing, love, and safety that a child should receive from their parents. Instead of tending to the sound of their daughters cry, they would hit her until the sound disappeared. As a result, this innocent little girl’s body was left bruised and her baby teeth were all chipped from her gums- all because her parents did not want to hear her cry, or pick her up and hug her, to show her love and care for her. They left her in her crib, hurting, on the inside and out. No child so young and frail should have to endure the pain that this little girl did. Casa De Fe saved her, in so many ways, without it who knows where she would be today. Yet, after going through all that she did, this little girl had the most beautiful smile and the most magical laugh because now, she is loved and now, she has a home.

When it came time to leave I really didn’t want to go. All of these little girls taught us so much and showed us what it’s like to really be a family and love each other. Casa De Fe is a place I will never forget and an experience that I will hold dear to my heart. I won’t ever forget the smiles of those little girls, the toughest, bravest, little girls in the world.

Chey – LiveDifferent Academy Student 2012

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 29th, 2012

Life is painting a picture

On an ideal Saturday in Mexico, like today was, most people would probably want to be spending time on the beach getting tan, or even just lounging around. While these things sound pretty great, it’s not how we chose to spend our day. Instead, we spent three and a half hours in a dusty cemetery painting rocks white…doesn’t sound like a great time eh? But we couldn’t have been happier to spend that time making someone’s loved one’s grave as beautiful as we could manage with the small team of 8 ½ people (the half being little two year old Edwin) that we had assembled.

As part of our academy curriculum we are given the task to find a project. This project must be to help the community around us in some way. The guidelines weren’t very strict and we could do almost anything we thought would be a great for the community. My group, consisting of myself and Chey, chose to paint the rocks in the cemetery in an effort to make the dusty old place seem new again, and I think we did a great job!

If you go to your local cemetery at home you’re likely to see well maintained grass and many fancy head stones marking the spots where loved ones lay. In Mexico this is not the case. Not everyone can afford to pay for a head stone, or more commonly a miniature house to mark the grave of their loved ones, and as you walk through the rows of the cemetery you’ll quickly notice that some graves only have a large rock or two sticks tied together to mark a grave. Graves like this made me feel so sad, and were a sharp contrast to the full sized houses some people could afford that stood right next to them. It had never really occurred to me before how blessed I am to grow up in a place that has such fancy cemeteries, were everyone is taken care of equally and someone is paid to make sure all the graves look nice. Yes, not everyone’s stones are as fancy and maybe not everyone had a fancy funeral, but someone would never be placed in a cemetery like ours without something to mark their spot, something with their name and their birth date written so everyone who passed by would know who they were. Down here in Mexico however you see many crosses without a name and I can’t help but hurt inside for this person, who is now nameless to the world. I believe it’s the little things that make the biggest difference, and that is why we chose to do this as our Community Project.

And as I sat painting the rocks it gave me a sense of joy to be able to give this family, who couldn’t afford anything to mark the grave, something beautiful, something that they would look at a think ‘someone must care’. I wish I could tell each of them that it’s true, that I do care, even if I didn’t actually know any of these people personally, most of which were children. I do care about the state in which they lay because I don’t think that the amount of money you make should determine how much beauty you’re allowed to surround yourself with. Everyone deserves to have nice things, even if all I can give them is a nicely painted rock. It’s the thought that counts, and I think most would appreciate being thought about on this beautiful Saturday afternoon.

So the tans could wait, and we could nap another day because today we would rather lend a hand to someone less fortunate. Even if our backs hurt and we are now all covered in paint, I don’t think any one of us regrets the time we spent painting those rocks today. Even if losing someone close to you is the hardest thing anyone will have to go through I hope those people will smile when they see the work we did today by the grave of the person they love. I hope it makes them see the beauty in the world around them, and I hope they know that the person they loved so dearly changed my life, and made me thankful for the loved ones I still have, thankful for the life I live, and most of all thankful to have had the opportunity to help them in this small way. Though this project started out simply as an idea we had to help the community, it turned into something incredibly life-changing for me. I would have never guessed all this change would come from painting rocks but I couldn’t be happier it did!

Brigitte ~ LiveDifferent Academy Student 2012

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 26th, 2012

So…what’s been happening since your Hero Holiday?

Ever wonder what other past volunteers are doing once they go home? Many of our teams leave their Hero Holidays armed and ready to change their worlds. If you have ever been on a Hero Holiday you know that you leave with many new friendships with others who get you and understand the crazy things you just accomplished together. They get you, they understand the emotions you have felt and have shared their dreams to make our world a better place for those stuck in the cycle of poverty. They know what it’s like to work alongside someone looking for plastic bottles at the garbage dump in the DR, or to hammer nails while the wind is turning up dust all around you in Mexico, or to have carried water up the side of a mountain to our school in Cap Haitien, or looked into the eyes of a child that has been exposed to things that no one at their age should have seen in Thailand. One thing that we always hope is that our volunteers stay connected as they go home, and encourage one another not to fall into the same way of life before their Hero Holiday. I thought I would get some of the interns from our Summer 2012 to let you know how they are doing to encourage you as you journey on what ever path you are on. 

“Since I have been home from the Dominican life has been so different for me. I started my first year of college which has been a major life adjustment to say the least, and since my experience in DR, there are some things I have not been able to look at the same way. I can’t look at or drink out of a plastic water bottle without having this feeling in my stomach or memory of finding them at the garbage dump, the same goes for wasting food. One of the major things that hit me square in the face was seeing poverty in and around my own community. When I was out one night, there was a women handing out paper towels in the women’s washroom and had a plate beside her collecting tips. When I went to give her a tip some of my friends looked at me weird…which made me a little angry but then I reminded myself that I have experienced something different from them, and everyone has a story so you can’t judge someone by the first impression.  That’s something that has really changed my outlook on life; that everyone has a story, and there is always a positive to every situation. Some days are worse than others, and it’s easy to get caught up in the memories, or shed a few tears because you are reminded of the connections you have made back in the DR or with people across Canada that you may not see every day. Keeping in touch with the other interns and participants from my past years in the Dominican is really what keeps my head up the most. I met some amazing people that I may not get the chance to talk to everyday, but they are forever in my heart and they have created a passion that will never leave me.” ~ Katelynn

“Since returning from a Hero Holiday Internship in the Dominican Republic, I have realized how much I have changed as an individual. I am much more positive, and I feel that I have become a much stronger leader. Since I have been home I have shared my experiences with every person who is willing to listen. I hope that sharing my experiences can initiate change in others. Because of the internship, I keep a mindset that everyone has a story. This makes me more sensitive and open to new people I meet, or even people I associate with on a daily basis. I sometimes find it difficult to realize that I have changed something, but when I volunteer at Special Olympics, the smiles, laughter, and hugs that the Olympians display are sure signs of change that I am a part of.” ~ Reggie

“Since coming home and completing the internship, I feel my perspective on myself and my life have changed so much. For so long I had memories pushed into the back of my mind that I just considered a dark part of my past. I didn’t want to think of them, let alone tell anyone, because I was scared of the feelings they would bring back of the insecure girl I was in high school. Since opening up with the other interns and allowing myself to tell my story for the first time, I felt freed, as if a heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders. In the days and weeks following the trip, I’ve been able to look back on my past with an understanding rather then resentment, and realize how overcoming depressing thoughts has made me the person I am today. Pain changes people and since the Dominican, there is never a day that goes by that I am not thankful that it has changed me for the better. I’ve realized that everyone has a story and everyone is the way there are for a reason. LiveDifferent, the interns, the amazing locals, and all the experiences I have had in the Dominican has changed the way I look at life, and that is an experience I would never give up for the world.” ~ Haley

“After I arrived home this summer, I spent hours upon hours just thinking of what to do next. I stayed up until the wee hours of morning (that’s when I got my best planning done), just thinking of anything that I could do. At school, I am part of three councils: Athletic Council, Students Council, and Roots and Shoots. By far, Roots and Shoots is closest to my heart and I am the leader of the group; we do fundraising for humanitarian reasons in our community as well as for international organizations. Being on three councils, I also try to get the other councils to help us out. In addition to the work I’ve been doing in school, I have also been fundraising for the interns “Arroyo Seco” project. All the interns went home with the goal of raising money to help with renovations on the community centre in Arroyo Seco, DR. It took me a while to figure out how to do this, but in general, the simplest idea ended up being the best. My mom is a teacher at the Montessori School of Sudbury  (a not-for-profit organization) and I placed a large Water Bottle (Culligan Type) for parents of students to put change or bills in. I ended up having immense amounts of success and plenty of parents supported the cause… I fundraised close to a thousand dollars!!!!! Though I have kept myself involved after arriving home, it has not been easy. I have had plenty of ups and downs and I can put my own definition to what is a “angry humanitarian”. Everyone asked me how my trip was, but very few asked more than that. As we learn in final debriefing, I had made my 30 second story, my one minute story, and even my hours long story. It’s disappointing to say that I only shared my hour long story on a couple of occasions. The definite positive aspect is that all those I know that actually care about what I do is that they were very proud of me. I was on the cover of a local magazine when I arrived home and I was actually very proud of myself. Coming home, some of my culture shock and realization had to do with my friends and family. Over the past couple of months, I have had some struggles with friends, and even family; much of it having to do with my different values and perspectives of the world. It has also been an inner struggle. I have had to keep myself from falling back into depression, but I am working hard to stay positive. Also, keeping in contact with the interns from Summer 2012 has helped me TONS. These are people that truly understand me and have seen a side of me that no one back home has. Along with many of the leaders and my team members, they are my LiveDifferent family and they will always have a place in my heart. While I wish I could be planning for another Hero Holiday, I’m very busy. Being a grade 12 student, I have a lot of big decisions to make in my near future, and I am a very high stress person . The two don’t really compliment each other. While I do not have a Hero Holiday planned in the next year, I will do whatever I can to help LiveDifferent and to represent the organization. As I fill in different scholarship applications, my trip always almost comes up as it has been such an important time in my life. I have chosen to LiveDifferent, and hope that I can get others to do so as well.” ~ Rachel

“I’ve had many positive things happen to me since returning from interning in the Dominican Republic. I’ve had hundreds of people ask me about the trip in person as well as on facebook and asked for information and what they can do to get involved. I was asked by the mayor to do a presentation on my trip. I joined a popular society at my university called Enactus that deals with helping people in many different forms. I have recently began talks with them in order to collaborate together to help fund for the school in Arroyo Seco and they enjoyed what we do so much that they wanted to help out even more. I have finalized that I am planning to attend a Hero Holiday trip to Mexico this upcoming summer as well! I have had struggles though since coming home, it’s difficult to be around people at university who have no idea what other people in the world are dealing with. Many people don’t understand and people are oblivious to more important things in life. I find myself constantly getting caught up in drama and materials that really don’t have any significance. My grandmother’s cancer came back after returning home and the words of advice Johnny (LiveDifferent Staff) gave me from my long talks with him really helped me get through it all and they will definitely stick with me for the rest of my life. I often struggle with the day to day boring school items (we all do) and stay motivated but there are many times where the real me comes in, the me from the DR, and I am reminded of the value in my education. I have looked into different career paths and options including being apart of a unit in the RCMP that helps stop sex trafficking and slavery in Canada. I look forward to experiencing a new Hero Holiday location in Mexico and building a house there too.”  ~ Garrett

We LOVE our interns and they are a vital part of our summer programs and help to make them a success! We all go through struggles when we go home but it is important that you don’t forget all the relationships that you developed on your Hero Holiday. For the families you meet or kids in the community, honour or respect their memory by letting your life continue to be different. Let your choices reflect the change that has happened in you. One of the best way to keep this change alive is to stay connected with your team from your trip. If you have not already be sure to reach out to others via facebook or skype. Encourage each other as you choose to each day to LiveDifferent!

Nettie Brown, Manager of Operations for Dominican Republic and Haiti

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 20th, 2012

One of those days…

I’m fairly certain everyone has had one of those days. You know those days that nothing goes right, that everything seems to be working in such a way to purposely make your life harder and more stressful. I had one of those days a little while ago, and trust me; it was really on of those days. Our team left a school at about 2:30 and after about a four-hour drive, through a snowstorm, we stopped for dinner. We only had a 25-minute drive after that but we soon found out that it wouldn’t be that easy. The road was closed. We ended up driving an extra 3 hours, through a blizzard to the high school we were suppose to be staying in that night….suppose to be staying at. We soon found out after knocking on the door for a good while in the freezing cold, that there was no one there to actually let us in. Eleven-thirty at night in the freezing wind and snow with no place to stay. Not exactly the happy ending we were hoping for. In desperation we found ourselves at the elementary school down the road, and just out of luck we found that a few teachers had actually been snowed in for the night. They graciously took us in and shared their coffee and chips and dip with us! As we were all sitting around a teacher explained to us that in all her 25 years at the school she had never had to stay over night. She then continued on with a humorous tone about how the first time she’s had to they end up taking in desperate strangers!

road snow

Through all the struggles there was some positive, we went to bed that night, warm and with some amazing new friends. Needless to say an early morning, little sleep, and a recovering twisted ankle didn’t exactly set me up for a fantastic positive day. Despite all this however I found myself almost bouncing off the walls with energy and excitement, thinking; today is going to be a good show, someone’s life is going to change today. As we loaded onto the freezing bus in the snow it wasn’t too hard to miss that some of the other team members weren’t really feeling the positivity today… this shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering the night before. The load in and set-up was rather rushed, and as the students started loading in I began to get goose bumps. I could have blamed them on the cold but the butterflies in my stomach could not be. I searched the faces and paid special attention to each individual I could spot, wondering to myself whose life would be changed by this presentation. Would they listen?

band boys

The feeling that today was going to be a good show wouldn’t leave me. The show ran as usual and afterwards I got to talk to some amazing kids. Time passed, and most of the kids had left for lunch, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that no one had come up and talked to me about how the show directly influenced them. But then I remembered when LiveDifferent came to my school and how they encouraged me so much and even though I couldn’t find the words to tell them, they still made such an incredible impact on my life. So even though a student hadn’t come up to me I still found myself hopeful in the belief that there was someone out there and that we did change their life. Just as this thought went through my head a girl came up to me. We started talking about the show and I asked if anything impacted her personally. We then ended up having an amazing conversation about her life and her struggles and just how much she appreciated what we shared. She had been struggling with family issues, fitting in and overall accepting herself. I could have given her advise about everything and broken it down for her, but I believe she simply needed someone to listen. She is an amazing girl and I told her that. I also explained that she should stay true to who she is because the person that she is is going to accomplish incredible things. I believe now more than ever that I need to fight for that passion and excitement every day, because you never know how much of a difference it is going to make.

Emily – LiveDifferent Academy Student, 2012

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 14th, 2012

Rainforest respite

After an emotionally charged morning spent at the Sosua garbage dump, an afternoon in the Dominican rainforest offered a well-deserved break, as well as a great opportunity for some team bonding.

Thirty minutes from our resort, down the roughest road on the island, we reached our hike. We climbed along tranquil trails, across streams and slippery rocks and logs until we reached the falls. We then cooled off with a swim and were entertained by a local as he climbed up the waterfall and dove into the water below.
It was the perfect venue to share thoughts from our trip thus far, and to get to know one another better.
It was so great to have an afternoon to explore part of this beautiful island before our final push to complete the homes for our families.
Shelley, Flight Attendant

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 6th, 2012

A day in their shoes

This week, we spent a few hours at the La Union garbage dump, living “a day in their shoes”. On this day, pairs of WestJetters are partnered with someone who works in the dump, and we assist them as they collect what we would consider trash – what some back home may not even take a minute to recycle.

Imagine the worst day you have ever had in your life, professional or personal. Now imagine living that day, sifting through bags of trash. Not just trash – feces, diapers, rotting and wasted food, maggots, discarded needles and medical supplies – items we in Canada would consider unfathomable to expose ourselves or our children to. Pregnant women, children as young as six, men and women as old as 70 all work, often with bare feet and hands, to collect enough items to fill a giant bag, earning sometimes just a few dollars for each one – what we might spend on a Starbucks coffee.
One 18 year old boy was asked what his biggest dream in life is and his only response was that he could not afford to dream. Another said he dreams of returning to school – having dropped out to support three sisters and his mother after his father’s passing. His favourite subject is Math, and his favourite thing to do is to sing and write music when he has paper to do so. Read that last part one more time, when he has paper… another item that without a second thought we might not recycle or even appreciate.
These people are not just faces; they have a favourite colour, a family, and when they have been given the opportunity, a dream. We may have “won the birth lottery”, as Cole, the LiveDifferent leader in the Dominican put it, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have nice things or enjoy a morning coffee, it just means we should think and LiveDifferently when we can. We need to do our part to help others in the world – one bottle, bag, house and person at a time.
As painful, dirty and heartbreaking as this experience may sound, we also found joy in La Union today. We observed “water cooler” gossip between workers that reminded us of home, watched as a young boy chased a full garbage truck as though it was Santa with a sack of gifts for him, and marveled at how a dog popping up from the rubble looked just as happy as my two dogs do when I get home. There was a real connection as we embraced the beautiful sky above us, learned about one another, sang side-by-side, and laughed together when a “gringo” (as they fondly refer to us) needed help choosing the right bottle or bag to save for their pile. There is happiness and beauty here at the garbage dump, as much as there is despair.
At the end of the day, the hardest part was knowing we had to leave, and that this was not what we would return to tomorrow. We continued on to have lunch, and went on a waterfall hike as a group – some of us, instinctively and excitedly reaching for a discarded plastic bottle on the way – and then tearfully realizing we could not add it to someone’s bag. I know that none of us will ever look at a plastic bottle the same way. I will see the look in their eyes, the smile on their faces, and the situation that we have the opportunity to change.
So I ask you to consider something that Cole said to us: “Who would you be if that was your reality?” Further to that, do you dream of the world being a better place? We are WestJetters, and we care enough to make a difference, so why not start today? Pay attention to that plastic bottle, or the papers in your wallet. Be grateful and generous in whatever way you can as small or large as the gesture may be. Say kind words to a stranger, volunteer in your community, connect with someone on the street – do what you can to LiveDifferently. Don’t wait for Hero Holiday to make a change!
The last four days in the Dominican Republic have brought some of the most emotional experiences of my life, as I connected not only with the 49 other WestJetters I’ve been working with, but also with the communities that WestJet is proud to serve. . For anyone who has thought about applying for Hero Holiday in the past, but talked themself out of it (like I did in April), don’t let yourself make excuses. It will turn you upside down, and in just five days. I have already received so much more than I will ever have the opportunity to give back.
I am equally as amazed at the spirit of WestJetters here with me. We have bandaged wounds in the jungle, given up a dry towel in a torrential downpour, sifted sand for eight straight hours, worked through shovel puncture wounds and held each other’s hands through the good and the bad every day. WestJetters are amazing people, we come from an amazing culture of caring, and we are so fortunate to be here together. I hope to return to Augas Negras and La Union, if not with my WestJet family, then with my blood family.
If you’d like to read a different perspective on the garbage dump day, check out the blog post from the April 2012 trip.
Laurel, Advisor, Program Delivery, Airports

Author: LiveDifferent


Building a house into a home

We did a tour of the community and houses in Aguas Negra that we would be rebuilding with Live Different. We practically had to hold back the WestJetters from grabbing shovels, hammers and chisels on the spot and jumping in to help – that is just the way WestJetters are. No matter where they are in the world or their circumstances, they are always looking to help those who need. This group of 50 WestJetters has been living up to this standard every day with their eagerness to help in any way they can, and the fun they are having while working incredibly hard.

The days at the build site have provided once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for this group to experience a variety of different tasks, skills and moments with all of the people taking part in this build. Everyone is involved – other heroes, LiveDifferent staff, contractors, the families they are building for, the community of Aguas Negra, their children and even the local dogs. In these moments, I have seen WestJetters smile, cry and work very, very hard; Like Curtis, who spent an entire work-day chiseling out a line in the concrete so that the family could have a water line for a shower. I’ve seen relationships form despite language differences. When chatting with Charity, I asked her why her house was being built so quickly and her response was, “The amount of teamwork we have with our contractors is awesome.” It is amazing what can be communicated through charades and singing.
I’ve also seen WestJetters moved by getting to know the families they will be helping through this initiative. Everyone in the group has had a chance to tour a home that one of our families is currently living in. For $60 U.S. per month, this family of five rents a one-bedroom, one-kitchen house. You read that right, there is no bathroom and no real door. This family lives in extreme poverty but welcomed the group into their home and offered the group supper cooked over a tiny stove top. Moments like this have given this group even more momentum to pour all they have into creating new homes and new beginnings for these families.
The entire group has been working exceptionally hard these past few days and incredible progress has been made – walls are up, roofs are being put on and smooth coat is being applied to the walls. Soon these houses will fully take shape and all of us are truly looking forward to them soon becoming homes.
Sarah, Community Investment Coordinator

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 2nd, 2012

I may not have a penny, but I have faith

Where to begin? What an amazing and humbling day. We started the day off with a trip to a local church, community centre, and school. We listened to the pastor speak about his dream to better the community and speak about his vision, a vision not many people would dare to try to bring to reality. We saw hands-on what he was able to bring to this community and how one person can truly make a difference. One quote that really stood out that he said was, “I may not have a penny, but I have faith.” After meeting this gentleman, you truly believe that any single person can make a difference, as long as you have a dream and a vision. To listen to someone so inspiring and with such passion was truly such a privilege and something I will never forget. After meeting him we had the pleasure of playing basketball with the school children and a few games of jump rope.

After this visit, we continued on to another community called La Union. There are many things that I could write that truly would never do justice to this experience. Before you even get off the bus, the children are lined up with open hearts, smiles from ear to ear and a hand for you to grab. The minute they meet you, and you meet them, there is an instant connection. You look around and see the level of poverty these children and their families are living in, you would never believe how big their smiles are and how joyful they still are. They welcome you as if you have been friends forever.
The third and final stop of the day was to meet the families we will work with for the duration of the trip to build these wonderful homes for in Aguas Negra. Again, the entire community greeted us with open arms and smiles from ear to ear. It is truly surreal to look around and see the living conditions these families are living in and to try to understand where their smiles and laughter come from. For the first time, I truly realized that these people will be doing much more for me, than we will ever be doing for them.
Amanda, Emerging Media Coordinator

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 1st, 2012