The Most Empowering Week of My Life

Being empowered doesn’t come from things that come easy to us. It comes from the tougher times where we push ourselves to the limits and survive to tell the story. That’s how I feel about this experience.

Everyone else was so excited for ‘Week In The Life.’ I, on the other hand, was terrified. I didn’t sleep at all the night before we moved in or the first night outside of our normal bunkhouse either. I was living without walls and I wasn’t sure I could do it. But I have.

With a few changes, I’ve still been able to live this experience with everyone else. Though I helped with the building of the house, I don’t sleep there. I sleep in a room, on a concrete floor, with all the windows open. I have a mattress and a plastic chair, which are the only things that the others don’t have. No electricity. No running water. We all cook meals over the fire. It’s not an easy life to get used to.

We were all talking around the fire last night about the things we missed the most. The item I said I wish I had was a lamp. Just to be able to read at night is a luxury I definitely take for granted. The food item I wanted more than anything was peanut butter. Seems simple enough, right? Well, you’d be surprised how expensive it is for a family of 5 who are living on the income of one field worker! I’ll never look at it the same way again.

Showering is very different also. Though I find bathing with just a bucket challenging, it does raise a startling point about water usage. We as Canadians use far too much. To know that I can wash my hair and my entire body with just one bucket of water is shocking because I know I use far more in a shower with running water whether I mean to or not.

But the best thing that has come from this experience is that I feel it has made everyone better friends. In order to be successful in an environment like this, you have to be able to work together and function as one unit. I think we have done pretty well at doing just that. Personally, I have had to become better at acknowledging what I can and cannot do and ask for help. I am not usually good at that, but during this time I’ve had no choice. I’ve also had to do different types of work than the others would do. There are times I wish I could be in the fields working with them, but at the same time I like doing different work because I enjoy when we share our stories about our day once we’re all together in the evening again. It makes the experience all the more interesting.

Is this a way I would want to live for an extended period of time? No. But I have realized that the people who do live in these circumstances are extremely courageous and strong. After walking a mile in their shoes, no better words could be said. My frame of mind has been forever changed by this experience.

– Melissa, Academy Student 2015

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 9th, 2015

Four Thousand Zucchinis

We returned to the fields again and this time was more interesting for me because I was actually able to go. I was sick the day before and had to stay behind.  I have some previous farming experience from my work back in Canada. We harvested zucchini, cutting them off the plant and then throwing them in the dirt to be collected later. This surprised us all. In Mexico, only the small little zucchini’s are able to be sold, apparently no one wants to eat the larger ones. The concept still confuses me, the fact that so much food goes to waste simply because of its shape and size, because the market prefers them a certain way. Ever wonder why all the vegetables and fruit on the shelf are the exact same? Where did the rest go that didn’t fit the criteria? This farmer figured many of the unwanted zucchini’s would be used for pig food.

We must have picked thousands of zucchini – and I kept count so I do mean thousands, 4,125 to be exact! The labour was hard and our backs are sore from all the bending. It’s hard for me to imagine doing that back breaking work every day for years, only making enough to just get by. I just cannot imagine it. I’ve tried comparing my previous farm work to this but it’s not really comparable. The workload was higher than I have ever experienced.

Being sick and missing a day of work at the fields, I realized that if I was actually living in this situation, staying home sick isn’t really an option. Let’s pretend I’m the only one in my family earning money.  I can’t take a sick day if I’m only earning enough to get by each day. I would not have the same luxury I do back home when I am sick, to take a day, sometimes with pay, to rest and recover. This is something that I had not really thought about before this trip, and something that I am happy to have recognized. This week is full of new and thought provoking experiences, and I am learning quite a lot.

– Written by George, Academy Student 2015

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 5th, 2015

A Positive Look at Challenges

Planning for Week in the Life, learning what it was about, and trying to think of ways to prepare for it, was all very exciting. However, now that we are actually a part of the experience, we have a totally new mindset. So far this week we have learned new cooking skills and how to work in the orchard and in the fields.  The first day we had it pretty easy, moving into our house, cooking and setting up around home. Monday was harder, adding work at the orchard to chores and cooking was rough. Our work included cleaning up debris and leaves, and watering the trees. A seven hour day, working in the hot sun was exhausting, and then when we got home we had to do maintenance on our house, grocery shopping, and cooking. It made us realize the work people have to do every day to make little money and keep up their living spaces.

Monday night was a tough one.  It rained a little bit, getting many of our things wet, including our firewood and matches. So on Tuesday morning it took us a long time to get the fire started to refry our beans for lunch. With no time to walk to the bus, we had to pay for a ride. It was not the best morning, but it is all part of the experience and learning about daily challenges that arise when you don’t have access to electricity, a stove, or a secure shelter. 

Our work on Tuesday was at a local farm picking strawberries. Because the bushes were not mature, there were not a lot of berries to pick. Thankfully, when it’s like this the farmer pays each worker by the day, not by the case of strawberries. 

Within these first few days we have learned a lot about ourselves, each other, and life. It is the people around you that help you out when times are tough. We recognize that we all need to stay positive and determined and we can learn a lot through this experience. With this in mind, I came to the realization that every outhouse is going to be gross so I might as well get over it. I also understand now that when I am at home and my mom comes home from work and I say “What’s for dinner?” that I’m not being fair to her because she’s been working all day. It’s very tiring to go to work and then come home and continue working around the house. I commend the people here who wake up before the sun and labour in the fields all day. I also admire the people at home, in Mexico, and elsewhere in the world that put in a full day of hard work, return home and find the energy to raise a family and maintain a household.

– Grace, LiveDifferent Academy Student 2015

Author: LiveDifferent


The Littlest Things can Mean a Lot

When I made plans to come here to the LiveDifferent Academy, I didn’t have any idea what it would be like. So far, it has been one surprise after another. The things I know that have proven useful are not what I expected to use. At Oasis, an after-school program for kids, I have been able to embrace my love of art and share it with the children. One of the teachers there invited me to do art lessons with the kids and I jumped at the chance. Art is something I love so much because it is a great way to express yourself and it can never be wrong. Art is an interpretation of who the artist is. Above all else, my hope is that the children will take that lesson with them.

Oasis was also looking for someone to do some artwork for the walls. Again, I readily volunteered. The sketches are in progress and I am determined to get them painted and up on the walls before my time here comes to a close.

Then, there is New Beginnings. This is a place I knew I wanted to be a part of the first time we visited. It was described as a women’s shelter to us, but it’s easy to see Dorothy really goes above and beyond to make it a home for the women who live there. Dorothy’s created such a welcoming environment. I have been lucky enough to be able to teach some of the women how to knit, which I enjoy very much. To me, it was just a hobby I was taught when I was eight years old because I was bored. To these women, however, it could be a life skill, a new way to make clothing and other necessities for them and their children. It is very cool to be able to pass that on. 

To be past the half-way point of this trip is unbelievable. I cannot even begin to imagine what will come next, but I know I am looking forward to it!


–Written by Melissa Cunning

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 3rd, 2015

We learn from one another

We had our first full week of volunteering and I felt it went really well. We volunteered at various organizations including Casa Hogar Ebenezer and Buen Samaritano – old age homes, Oasis – an after-school program, Welcome Home – a daycare, New Beginnings- a women’s shelter, and we taught English and an art class at a local school and a community center.

            Throughout the week I really enjoyed teaching English at the Chula Vista Community Centre to kids in grades 1-3. Our class has about 15 children in it and more are joining as the class is becoming known in the community. It is an incredible experience to be these children’s resource to learn a new language. The ability for them to speak and understand English can open up numerous possibilities and opportunities in their lives. It is, however, extremely challenging, as I am not a teacher and have never taught English to anyone.  We were lucky to have an English teacher in Canada devise a beginner program for us and then send a woman down to Mexico to teach us in person.  Even with the program, it is difficult but we are all learning together and from each other as well.  My highlight from our first class was when the children started to catch on to the sounds and letters we were trying to teach them. It is very rewarding hearing the children speak in English even though its only one small word.  Seeing them starting to understand it is an incredible experience.

            I had a great personal experience at Buen Samartiano.  We got to work closely with the seniors and it was really nice to help them out in any way that we could.  While we were there, Ally and I were painting the women’s fingernails. There was one woman who I had a strong connection with. While painting her nails, she was telling me all sorts of stories, which I couldn’t understand since they were in Spanish.  I did my best and smiled and laughed when it was appropriate and she got noticeably happier as our time continued. It is amazing how happy this woman was to have someone listen to her stories and to share laughs with, and I was happy to share that with her too.

            After this first week of volunteering I am very excited for what’s to come within these next few weeks, as we continue to strengthen relationships where we volunteer and with the people in the community. 


~ Danica, LiveDifferent Academy Student, 2015

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: October 26th, 2015

A Glimpse of What is to Come

During our first week back in Zapata, after Spanish school in Ensenada, we spent most of our time visiting all the volunteering locations and learning about their history and mission. We visited a few afterschool daycares – Oasis, Welcome Home, and Chula Vista Community Center; a couple old age homes – Buen Samaritano and Casa Hogar Ebenezer; and a Women’s shelter called New Beginnings.

Visiting these places was an experience of their own. Each place was so welcoming and passionate about the organization and willing to talk to us about the struggles and path they had to take to create the organization. It felt as if we were entering a bundle of both positive and negative emotions when we listened to the stories of the creators. We were very excited to meet the founders of these organizations and they were excited to meet us and have us help them with their daily activities.

One NGO that stood out to me was the women’s shelter. We met Dorothy, the founder of New Beginnings, and we listened to all the empowering and somber stories of the women at the shelter. Many of the women have been involved in the sex trade or were victims of abuse and neglect. The shelter was set up to help these women rediscover themselves and learn skills such as sewing, cooking, and child care. They fundraise for the shelter every weekend by selling jams in three different flavours: Mango, Strawberry, and Mixed Berry, and mixed in are Jalapeño peppers to make a very sweet, spicy and delicious jam, a treat they graciously shared with us.

This week was a great experience, listening to all the stories, and we are all excited to start volunteering next week.


– George, Academy Student 2015

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: October 25th, 2015

Ensenada, Spanish classes, and a Trek to find Buddha

Traveling to Mexico and living immersed in the culture is an incredible privilege that I am very lucky to be a part of.  The opportunity to learn Spanish while living here is such a blessing and advantage I did not think I would have. The idea of learning another language did not sink in with me until this week. Traveling to Ensenada left me feeling of anxious, I was really nervous about staying with a host family because of the language barrier. I wondered if they would be able to understand me and how I would be able to communicate with them if we did not speak the same language. After I spent a week with Diana and Roberto, I felt at ease.  Diana prepared every meal for us and made it a warm, welcoming stay, and overall an awesome experience. Mexican food is very different from what we are used to eating in Canada.

At every meal we are offered homemade tortillas or a kind of burrito, and of course refried beans. It very delicious although some of the spices are very strong and not what we are all used to. Diana and Roberto did their very best to make us feel at home and comfortable.  Not only did we learn Spanish in our schooling but we also learned it in the home speaking to each other. I have to admit that working to learn a new language in such a short amount of time is mentally exhausting, so our days usually ended pretty early, to catch up on much needed sleep.


The first week in Spanish school was somewhat difficult. The first couple days were easier with learning verbs and adjectives, but as we got more into the language, I found it to be a challenge.  We attended Spanish lessons Monday to Friday, 9am to 2pm. Since we had some down time after school, we were able to explore the city of Ensenada.  My Academy family and I trekked to find a statue of a giant Buddha and we hiked up one of the mountains to find a gorgeous view of the whole city.  Three sides of the city are surrounded by mountains. The Pacific Ocean is on the fourth side.  We also went horseback riding down the beach. I was so nervous but was happy I faced my fears and went with the group.

Getting to know the area of Ensenada was different than the area of Zapata where we live during the program. There, everything is spread out and poverty is more prominent, and it is much smaller in population, with only 4682 people. Ensenada is a city with a population of 466,814 and consists of old and new developments. I am told that it is very much like California, USA.  I am learning a lot about Mexico and the culture, and I am hopeful I will be able to retain and speak Spanish with my Academy family, the community, and even with my parents on face time!

– Grace, LiveDifferent Academy Student, Fall 2015


Author: LiveDifferent

Date: October 19th, 2015

Different Beginnings

I’ve always been different. I knew that very early growing up as a person with a physical disability. Having cerebral palsy can leave you misunderstood by others, but I saw power in that. If people are reading you wrong, then you have the opportunity to help them understand who you are, and most importantly what you’re capable of.
My mission in life has always been to make a difference in the world. I never knew what that would involve or how to go about it, but I’ve forged down a lot of avenues in search of it. I have been doing volunteer work for most of my life and it’s been my way to find purpose since I’ve been struggling to gain employment since I graduated from college, and then university. Since I couldn’t get someone to hire me for a job, I just decided finally to create one! After all, is your life’s purpose determined by a paycheck? I didn’t feel that it was. So when the opportunity to join the Kiwanis Aktion Club of Lakeshore, a service club for adults with disabilities that is dedicated to working with other Kiwanis branches to help the children of the world, I jumped at it! I became a member in July of 2014 and am currently the acting Vice President. In my mind I have a job, a purpose. And I planned to take that as far as I could.
After being turned away by a lot of volunteer groups to do international volunteer work because they didn’t think I could be “useful”, I found LiveDifferent. I was just doing yet another online search one day and happened to stumble across the website. Not expecting anything much, I sent an email to inquire about what their Academy program was about. That started the email correspondence with Jenn at LiveDifferent, and when I told her about my disability, she acted like it was no big deal. Suddenly somebody saw what I could do regardless of the fact that I had two forearm crutches in my hands when I walked. It was the most awesome feeling ever. I’d found my chance!
Julia Roberts said in the movie Steel Magnolias (one of my favorites!), “I’d rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” Well if you ask me, I’m getting way more than thirty minutes and I can’t wait to embark on this adventure! After all it’s not what people think you can do, but what you actually do that really matters – and I think, I know, that I and the rest of my Academy team members can make an impact.
– Melissa, LiveDifferent Academy Student, Fall 2015

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: September 15th, 2015

The best things about Mexico

Mexico is a beautiful country with great diversity. Here in the state of Baja California you can find volcanoes, mountains, desert, ocean and possibly the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Though all of this is fantastic and certainly desirable, they are far from my favourite part of Mexico.  For me, the true beauty lies within the hearts of the people; their stories, their smiles, their laughter and their happiness. 
This is what makes the Academy experience so special and important. In my time here I have come to know many members of the community, some better than others. I could already speak Spanish prior to arriving here, which has helped me make connections with the local people, and I have been doing my best to take full advantage of it. 
There is a woman named Ilda who sometimes comes to help out with the cooking at the house. She has the most welcoming and warm smile to greet everyone with. Whenever she’s here I lean over the counter and chit-chat while she cooks. She tells me stories about her son, and her husband who lives in the States, and just the day to day things. I tell her about my day and we gossip and laugh. It seems so normal and simple. Some days our easy chatter and laughter leads into more serious talks; she tells me about how hard it is to be twenty-three while still trying to finish high school and take care of her 4 year old son and work as well. She faces challenges every day and yet always greets me with that same smile. She is filled with joy and is always interested to hear about my life. It’s so staggering and humbling to think about the normal conversations we have, the similarities between us, and yet how far apart the worlds we come from are. 
On Thursday mornings I load into a van with two other LDA’s and we head to a senior’s care home in nearby Vicente Guerrero. The first few times I felt anxious, but now I have found a part about it that I love. One of the ladies that works there has such interesting stories about her life. She has faced so many tragedies and yet holds so much hope for her future and that of her kids as well. She’s very open with us and offers up her tales and answers all of our questions. She inspires me to believe that no matter what happens in my life I should always have hope for tomorrow. She’s one of those people who inadvertently makes you stop and think about your actions, your beliefs, and your life. 
Now this next one might sound a little silly…but this week I found out that the kids I teach English to actually know my name. That was huge for me, even though it’s so small. My teaching partner was sick and the kids asked after him by name. They worried about if he was okay and asked if I was sick too. They seemed genuinely concerned. I worry about them and love spending time with them but it had never occurred to me that they might worry about me and enjoy spending time with me just as much. That day in class has been one of my favorites so far. When I took the kids outside to play a game the girls clung to me and were sad to see me go at the end. It’s nice to know that me being there might be touching their lives in a way more than just teaching them a bit of English. 
As part of a new part of Academy this year we go to a “host family” every Thursday afternoon and evening. Our host family has us cook and eat with them, they take us to Zumba class, and really just hang out with us. It’s generally the highlight of my week. Our host family is incredibly sweet and welcoming. They show a lot of concern for us and are always asking us things about our lives and trying to makes us feel included. They let us sit in on their family life, which on its own an incredible thing, but then they also do their best to make us feel a part of it. This Thursday our host mom and I sat and talked for a while about how hard it is to get a visa into the United States and Canada for a Mexican. The injustice of it all tears at my heart strings. I wish the governments could see the heart and joy of the people I know here and reconsider their opinions for them. 
Our days in Mexico are numbered now and I plan on making each one of them count. I don’t know exactly what I came here for or if I’ve found it yet, but I know that things for me have irrevocably changed. I have a new outlook on this beautiful country and I know that when I leave a little part of me will stay here, with the people I have met and shared with and befriended.
– Carrington, LiveDifferent Academy Student, Fall 2014

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 28th, 2014

Giving is Getting

Most of us forget that poverty exists. We forget as we pull out our phones to get updated on Facebook, as we drive in our air conditioned vehicles, as we contemplate whether or not to purchase a new piece of clothing. 
I used to forget about poverty. When I was a child, it was a fact that I would be educated until I graduated from high school. There were no ‘ifs’ nor ‘buts’ about it. It was a fact that I would be fed three nutritious meals a day – I have never in my life gone to bed hungry. It was a fact that if I got sick or hurt myself, I would have access to healthcare. 
After the LiveDifferent Academy’s house build, I will never forget about poverty. During our build, I met Elizabeth, a nine year old girl, who is one of the children of the family we built for. She deserves to have all of the opportunity in the world. However, due to circumstances that she was born into, it is not all available for her. 
It is not a fact that she will be educated until she graduates. While she is currently in school, she does not have her birth certificate—a surprisingly common occurrence—which is needed to attend high school. It is not a fact that she will be fed three nutritious meals per day. As her father’s work in the fields is seasonal the food that they can afford is limited. Elizabeth’s diet consists mostly of salsa and quesadillas, and I would not be surprised if she has gone to bed hungry before. It is not a fact that if she gets hurt or sick that she will have the access to health care she needs. If a family can hardly afford food, what can they do to pay the medical bills? 
It was such a privilege to give Elizabeth’s family have a hand-up to break out of their cycle of poverty by helping to build them a home. As we dedicated the house to them, tears were streaming down her face. She may be forever grateful to us for what we gave her family, but I am sure that all of us who built are forever grateful for the lesson that she and her family taught us – that any one of us can be a part of making a difference in someone’s life, and sparking the change that will now continue to happen for her family. That I will never forget. 
– Hannah, LiveDifferent Academy Student, Fall 2014

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 13th, 2014