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A heartfelt visit to Haiti

On a recent trip to Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Director of Community Engagement Elissa Grohne, CFO Derek Boyce, and partner Marcia Bergen ventured to see the project that benefits directly from her generous support—LiveDifferent’s Freedom Village.

For Marcia, witnessing the tangible results of her contributions was profoundly moving. The visit provided an opportunity to engage with the students and teachers at École L’Union—each interaction added layers to the understanding and appreciation of the work being done. The warmth and welcoming nature of the community of Calvaire was palpable, creating an unforgettable experience.

Walking the path of education

The visit started with a community tour of Calvaire, led by Frantzo, LiveDifferent’s Country Host for Haiti. Here, the team treaded the steep paths that the students navigate daily to reach their school—a humbling experience that underscored the resilience and determination of these young learners.

The visit included a stop at a local shop where books worth $8,700 CAD were purchased for the students, an important initiative made possible by the contributions of our LoveLegacy donors.

A day of interaction and contribution

The following day at École L’Union was packed with activities. Elissa conducted interviews, capturing teacher’s insights, while Derek applied his skills to enhance the school’s security system. Meanwhile, Marcia immersed herself in the school’s daily life, from helping in the kitchen to serving lunch. One student mentioned the joy of tasting cake for the first time, a simple yet profound moment.

Marcia’s hands-on involvement didn’t stop there; she assisted in distributing food hampers to families in need—provided by Mark H., reflecting the spirit of community and shared responsibility.

Reflections

The visit was a testament to the power of community and partnership in creating positive change, underscoring the critical role of education, health, and nutrition in fostering safe and thriving environments for the children in Haiti.

We extend our heartfelt thanks to Marcia Bergen, all our partners, our donors, volunteers, and everyone involved in supporting our mission in Haiti. Together, we are making a world of difference—one child, one community at a time.

Become a LoveLegacy partner and help support this important work.

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: April 16th, 2024

A journey of growth and impact: “Where are they now?” with Parker Willis

The beginning: A teenage Parker’s first Build

Parker’s journey with LiveDifferent began in the summer of 2011. At 14, Parker joined a Build in the Dominican Republic alongside his mother, longtime LiveDifferent employee and supporter Alison Willis. What was intended as a bonding trip turned into a life-altering experience. This initial exposure to LiveDifferent’s work ignited a passion in Parker, leading to a lasting involvement with the organization.

The path to Academy Coordinator

Following the first Build, Parker returned to the Dominican Republic in 2012 with friends and, after graduating from high school in 2014, participated in the LiveDifferent Academy Program in Mexico. The summer after the Academy program, Parker experienced a leadership role as an intern in the Dominican Republic, significantly influenced by the late Benjamin Cole Brown’s teachings and leadership style.

These experiences raised profound questions about global inequality and poverty for Parker, guiding him towards an International Development degree at York University, with a focus on Latin American studies, global economics, and world cultures, complemented by a master’s certificate from Humber College.

In the 2022-23 school year, Parker volunteered at the Deninu School in the Northwest Territories, enriching his understanding of Indigenous cultures and affirming his commitment to community service.

Parker facilitated the collaboration between LiveDifferent’s Road Teams and schools in the Northwest Territories, helping to bring the Circles mental wellness programming to Indigenous youth. This initiative provided a platform for students to engage in meaningful dialogues while highlighting the transformative power of volunteering.

When asked what stands out to him about LiveDifferent, he said, “The emphasis on human connection and meaningful relationships. The idea of being an individual is an important part of personal development and is extremely enticing to young people, but there is more to life than that. I’d say that’s one of the main lessons LiveDifferent has taught me. Without meaningful connection, an individual is all that we would be limited to and that can be a dark place to be.”

Returning to lead

Parker’s personal experience as a former Academy student inspired him to take on the role of Academy Coordinator in September 2023. He was driven by the opportunity to influence change within the communities LiveDifferent serves and to mentor youth seeking new adventures and learnings.

“The opportunity to help shape young minds and help students grow into the people they want to become is not something I take lightly.”

Through his volunteering experiences, Parker has developed a deep appreciation for humanity’s collective existence and the importance of simplicity in life. Embracing differences, authenticity, and integrity have become key tenets in his life.

Advice to youth

Parker’s advice to young adults considering a gap year or volunteer work is unequivocal: embrace the opportunity. He emphasizes that the journey of self-discovery and growth is challenging but immensely rewarding. He encourages young people to take their time in understanding themselves and the world, as these experiences are invaluable. He says, “If you truly wanted to discover yourself, it is going to take time and effort, it won’t be easy, it will challenge you, but it is so, so worth it.” 

Get Involved

Are you considering taking a gap semester or know something who is? Get involved with LiveDifferent! Learn more about our Academy Program.

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: January 10th, 2024

Welcoming hope: Two sisters find a new beginning at Freedom Village

At LiveDifferent, we believe in the power of change, the potential for transformation, and the importance of community. We are thrilled to share a heartwarming update that marks a significant step forward in our mission to make a difference in the lives of youth. We’ve welcomed the first two girls, sisters, into the Freedom Village in Haiti.

Emanuela, our dedicated house Mom at Freedom Village, has opened her heart to these brave young girls. Her nurturing and unwavering commitment to their well-being has already started to make a  difference in their lives.

Life hasn’t been easy for these sisters. They’ve faced adversity that would have left most of us feeling defeated. But what sets them apart is their unyielding spirit, resilience, and the hope they carry in their hearts. It’s a hope that’s not only helping them overcome their past but propelling them toward a brighter future.

Thanks to our incredibly generous donors, this opportunity has become a reality. This support has created a safe haven for these girls and many more who will follow in their footsteps. The Freedom Village stands as a symbol of hope, a place where dreams can flourish, and lives can be rebuilt.

LiveDifferent’s Manager of Construction and Logistics and Community Liaison, Frantzo Begin says, “Today it is a pleasure to be here and to see the dream we had a long time ago and see the reality of the dream. There’s no words to say how appreciative we are for the work LiveDifferent is doing because of all the donors and the support from the LoveLegacy community.”

In the community of Calvaire, these sisters are discovering a new family, a loving environment, and the support they need to thrive. They’re not just learning, growing and living; they’re embracing a second chance at life.

Thank you to our donors for helping us make this new beginning possible for these two sisters. Together, we are creating a world where dreams are not just chased but caught, where lives are not just lived but celebrated, and where adversity is not a roadblock but a stepping stone to a brighter future.

Learn more

Freedom Village will soon have the capacity to house 28 girls who have experienced abuse through Haiti’s Restavek system.

Want to get involved? Become a monthly LoveLegacy partner and watch your contributions change lives.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive monthly updates about our Compassion Projects in Haiti.

Author: Elissa Grohne

Date: November 1st, 2023

The Freedom Village: Celebrating a dream come to life

We are thrilled to report that the construction of the Freedom Village is 99% complete. We have started hiring staff and are currently putting the finishing touches on the facility.

We will soon open the doors to girls ages 6 to 16 so they can heal, learn, and ultimately get to a place where they can help serve and care for others in Haiti.

It is estimated that there are over 300,000 restavek children in Haiti. These children are sold or given away by their parents because they simply have no resources to keep them alive. Restavek children are almost always forced to do hard physical work, are denied education and are physically abused.

When LiveDifferent’s Benjamin Cole Brown heard about this system of slavery, he vowed to do something about it, and together with our Haitian partners, created the idea for the Freedom Village in 2013. In 2015, with the help of our partners in Winnipeg, MB, the property was purchased. Tragically one year later, Cole died in a plane crash at 36 years old, but his legacy continues to be honoured by LiveDifferent and so many others. The construction began on the Freedom Village in 2018.

The Freedom Village will help bring young girls out of the restavek system and give them freedom, hope, education and an opportunity for a healthy future. As we come to the end of our construction journey for the Freedom Village, let’s reflect on how far we have come.

Creating a home

Working with our local partner, ASEEDH, not only do we include and employ local workers for our projects, but we also network with local leaders, government officials, community members and other organizations who may be working in the area, so that we can assure that all efforts and resources are maximized completely.

Through many struggles – such as significant currency fluctuations, fights for the opportunity of employment, the riots and unrest that followed the assassination of the Haitian president, as well as a lack of fuel throughout Haiti – we were able to reach this incredible milestone.

“I already imagine this protected space filled with kindness and laughter of little girls who are finally happy.”

Michelle Guillaume, Manager of Operations in Haiti.

The Freedom Village is divided into two sections: The Village and the Guest House. The majority of the property will provide a beautiful space for the girls to heal in a family-style setting. The Guest House is a separate section of the property that will generate income to support the girls’ programming and rehabilitation.

The Village will offer five family-style housing units with a total capacity of 28 girls and 5 house mothers. A counselling room and infirmary are constructed near the base of the site and a covered dining area is nestled on the roof.

The Guest House offers eight suites with a total capacity of 24 people. It also includes a staff apartment, lounge area, office, reception desk, storage depot, conference room, parking and a staff room. Most suites have a generous roof deck space and top-level suites are suitable for families with children.

Operating off-grid

The Freedom Village was designed with sustainability and efficiency in mind.

Rainwater from the roofs is collected and stored for usage as greywater throughout the facility. A solar power system (with diesel generator backup), a laundry room and a commercial kitchen are part of what is needed for the care and comfort of the children and guests.

Security is a top priority here, with the Freedom Village surrounded by large walls and armed guards 24/7. It’s important to note the care and love put into every last detail by the builders – and that includes the construction of the walls. They hand-hammered every stone flat for the wall, and in between each stone, they added smaller stones to add character, providing a more Haitian touch. The beauty of the architecture is truly breathtaking!

Learn more

The creation of the Freedom Village has been a long and arduous journey, but it stands as a testament to the determination and perseverance of LiveDifferent and our partners.

Not only is this project going to provide safe housing for vulnerable young girls, but it is a model of sustainability that shows how thoughtful design can help us honour our commitment to creating a positive, long-term impact in the communities we serve. We are proud to be able to offer this incredible opportunity and look forward to seeing what these young girls will accomplish in their new home.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can support this cause, join LoveLegacy.

Author: Gina Alward

Date: May 25th, 2023

Operations update on École L’Union

The levels of violence and unrest in Haiti over the past few months have reached critical heights, and we have been working diligently with parents, teachers and community members to safely re-open École L’Union.

While the majority of unrest in Haiti is in the South near the capital city of Port-au-Prince, there were looming concerns of protest activities growing in the North as well. But one of the main impacts on École L’Union was that fuel was completely unavailable, which greatly affected operations.

After much deliberation, we’re pleased to say that as of Monday, Dec. 5, students have returned to school. But the situation in Haiti continues to be unsettling. The safety of our students and staff is always our top priority, and we will continue to monitor the situation as things progress. Right now, we are preparing students as best we can with a modified lesson plan to ensure they are able to effectively complete their academic year and receive the quality education they so rightly deserve.

“Haitian students are being denied their basic right to education due to political and economic unrest. Studies show that when children are not in school, the level of hunger and violence within the families rises. When they are in school, they at least have a daily hot meal and people to care for them, so we’re happy to have students back in class.”

Michelle Guillaume, Manager of Operations in Haiti

Haiti is currently experiencing protests, civil unrest, armed gang violence, a cholera outbreak, and shortages of fuel, food and clean drinking water. We were hoping to return to École L’Union at the beginning of the term in September 2022, but during this time, two things happened: The Minister of Education postponed school openings until Oct. 3, and the acting Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, announced that the Haitian government would be ending fuel subsidies, causing the price of fuel to increase by three times its normal amount. This led to protests, and riots and blocked roads.

In this crisis atmosphere, parents and families did not feel safe sending their children to school, with dozens of gangs increasing and rising acts of violence throughout the country. Because of this, the reopening date for school would be pushed back even further. While some of Haiti’s wealthiest families were able to switch to online learning, this was not possible in vulnerable communities that simply do not have the resources, such as Calvaire. As a result, our team has had many meetings with parents and teachers over the past few months to consider several reopening plans that would give our students safe access to education.

Many of our staff and students at École L’Union were able to return full-time in December. Rest assured that we will continue to act in their best interests. We are confident that we are operating by the safest means possible and that we will be able to recover from the time lost during the academic year.

We will continue to follow the situation in Haiti via news outlets, but most importantly, via our staff team on the ground in Haiti.

Author: Gina Alward

Date: December 14th, 2022

Talking with Jade about Fundraising and Life-Changing Connections

There wasn’t a lot of time to pull everything together, but Jade’s determination—and a little help from friends and family along the way—made it happen.

In January 2018, she found herself in the middle of our presentation that was focused on kindness. During that time, she was introduced to the Builds program and received the invitation to make a difference with us internationally. One month later, she signed up for our March Break Build to the Dominican Republic.

Now, it was time to start fundraising.

 

She found success early
For that first trip, her parents gave her a list of 30 emails. 

Armed with her fundraising page, some information on the cause, and the support of her parents, Jade sent individual messages to each of them. And to her surprise, she met her goal in just over a week. 

While it seems relatively straightforward, when reflecting on her fundraising success, Jade admits that to see success, there is a bit more to it than asking.

“If you’re just sending out a quick email like, “Hey, please donate.”, it’s not as impactful as you, sending pictures or talking to them face-to-face. Once people understand how passionate you are about it, they are more willing to help out and contribute.”

During her time on the Build, Jade was able to make strong connections and work alongside a family to build them a safe, new home. Together with other volunteers, she played a part in leaving lasting change in the community—and it left her wanting to return.


Go-back motivation
Seeing the difference that a home has on a family first hand made Jade want to return and do it all over again. But the second time fundraising proved to be a little more difficult.

“The first time is a lot easier, and then it progressively gets more and more difficult. Going back to the same people is really hard because they are more resistant.” 

Jade admits that she found herself feeling a little worried about hitting her goal and started pursuing other ways to raise money, including bake sales and raffles. She also expanded the circle of people she would ask for support to include teachers along with friends and their families.

Spoiler alert: Jade reached her goal and returned to the Dominican Republic.

Julia and Jade in the Dominican

 

Sharing advice for people getting into fundraising
With two successful fundraising campaigns under her belt, we asked her what encouragement she would share with peers wanting to make a difference but worried about fundraising.

“If I had tips for anybody looking to fundraise for their own Build, I think the biggest thing is being persistent. Because at first, you may not get the result that you want, and it may be harder than you really think… so just try not to be down. The more you radiate a positive energy towards what you are doing, and you talk about it, the more people are willing to listen and contribute.”

When coming up with fundraising ideas, she believes that everything should be on the table and encourages people to not look at the amount raised because every little bit helps. 

But in the end, to Jade, successful fundraising is all about relationships.

 

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: February 23rd, 2021

Conversations with Melanie

Melanie has been living in the Dominican Republic for a while before joining our team. As a Manager of Operations, she oversees all of the work that is happening across the island of Hispaniola.

We had the chance to ask her a few questions, and although she’s fluent in Spanish, she was kind enough to make sure to respond in English for all us non-fluent folks.

What drew you to working with LiveDifferent in your current role?
I was already living and working for another charity in the Dominican Republic before joining LiveDifferent. I had heard about the wonderful projects that this charity was working on and the fact that their head office is in Hamilton (my hometown) was an added bonus. When the role of Manager of Operations became available, I didn’t hesitate to apply and I am soooooo grateful that I did because I love being a part of the LiveDifferent family.

How do relationships and community play a part in your work?
It is the strong and long relationships that we have with our community leaders that allow us to do the wonderful work that we do. They are the true experts and we are simply here to lend a helping hand. Their insight in their respective communities is invaluable, as they guide us to focus our projects based on their needs and to support those who need it the most. We empower them to lead the way and what’s most important is that we listen to what they have to say. It’s a combined effort from beginning to end and we together take pride in our accomplishments.

 

In LiveDifferent, we have a very common saying that “life is about people”. What does that expression mean to you when it comes to your involvement with the volunteers and community members in the Dominican Republic?
We focus a lot on bridging connections between community members and volunteers. I can confidently say that in every Build, we accomplish this. By the end of each trip, everyone becomes one big family.

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: February 19th, 2021

Conversations with Rose

Rose resides in Mexico with her family and has been staff at LiveDifferent for over 10 years now. At the moment, she oversees everything that happens with our Builds and Academy programs while also staying connected with the communities we work in. She’s an engaging and supportive superstar, and all of us know how lucky we are to have her.

We had the chance to ask her some questions about her work in general, and Mexico specifically. And as always, her positivity shines through.

What do you love about the people you’re surrounded by in Mexico?
The people of Mexico have shown me what it means to be generous with whatever I have, and how to welcome others into my ‘family’. I love how they love a good story and a good laugh.

In your words, what do we hope to accomplish in this area of Mexico?
We hope to give a hand up to families that are struggling to pay for the basics. Rent can take a large chunk of the weekly salary of a field worker. They are not eligible for financing to build a decent house, so many live in a cycle of never-ending rent payments, or put that money towards a piece of land but end up living in houses made of plastic and cardboard. We seek to help provide basic shelter to families that have worked hard to buy land so that their health will improve and so that rent money can be put towards other family needs such as education.

What is your favourite part of your job?
I like that there is a lot of variety, but my favourite part would have to be meeting so many different people. Amazing people that have found their way to the San Quintin valley. People that work hard all day long and then come home with a smile on their face and care for their family. Youth that work hard to raise money to come to Baja California so that they can help someone else. Young adults searching for how they can make a difference in the world. Parents that want to give their children the opportunity to travel and experience what life looks like when we stop focusing on ourselves and our things.

When you think volunteers that you meet, what do you hope they take away from the Build experience?
My hope is that after getting to know a Mexican family, that they would see the intrinsic value of each person that they meet. That they would be encouraged that there are others who also have big hearts and care about our world—that they are not alone. And that there would be a ripple effect [as they] return to their home communities inspired to make a difference.

We have a very common saying that “life is about people”. What does that expression mean to you when it comes to your involvement with the volunteers and community members?
LiveDifferent’s saying of “life is about people” matches Mexican culture. Whether it is building a house, partnering with another organization or talking to one of our cooks, I have learned that I need to develop our relationships first before rushing into the business side of things that motivated our conversation. All of my work responsibilities, from administrative tasks to hosting volunteers, come down to putting people first.

Author: LiveDifferent

Date:

Welcoming the Garcia Vasquez Family Home, From a Distance

Families receiving a fresh start is something that we always cherish, but when we heard that the Garcia Vasquez family was selected by the community to receive a house in 2020, we knew that it had the opportunity to be extra special!

Every two years, Andrea and her students from Seycove Secondary School join us to work alongside a special community in the Dominican Republic. In 2018, they helped three families receive a fresh start and this March, they were going to be bringing three more families into safe, dry homes.

Students have the chance to connect on “family visits”

Bringing people together from different backgrounds has the power to change the world.

On a Build, everyone has the chance to experience something we call “Family Visits”—where volunteers and local families are able to cook, clean, and communicate together with the help of one of our translators. It’s a special time that allows for connections to be made that can leave a lasting impact.

The last time Seycove students were with us back in 2018, heavy rains had recently hit the community days before Andrea and a handful of her students had the chance to visit with the Garcia Vasquez family for their Day in the Life experience.

It was clear to everyone who walked through the front door how vulnerable this family of three was too flooding. Visible water damage could be seen across the walls, several feet above ground level, and when the dad spoke, he talked about how they would have to leave the house swimming to get to higher ground.

The mother had a sight condition, which made life difficult and their 11-year-old daughter had grown up in these unsafe living conditions for her whole life.

In talking to one of the students about their experience, Maria summed up her feelings by saying that it made her want to come back and build another home.

Breaking the news

We rely on members of the community to play a lead role in selecting who will receive a home. But when the Garcia Vasquez family popped up on the list, we were excited because in March, more student volunteers from Seycove Secondary School would be returning with Andrea.

We knew that pairing the two of them together was possible and would be extra significant to everyone involved.

Coronavirus cancellations

During the first half of March, things changed rapidly across Canada.

As society began limiting gatherings, restrictions were put on travel, and physical distancing rules were put into effect, the trip was cancelled.

The students were disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to physically put in the work, but each of them were excited to hear that we’d be doing everything we could so that the families would receive their new homes.

Welcome home

Thankfully before restrictions were put in place on the island, local contractors and community members were able to come together and work alongside the family to build their house and welcome them home.

Although it’s not how we wanted the story to end, we still find an incredible amount of inspiration in the fact that Andrea and her students were able to make a difference and help the Garcia Vasquez family begin a new chapter of their lives, even from a distance.

While we’re not taking any new registrations right now, we’ll be working to bring families into safe homes as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.

Want to be the first to know when they open up? Tell us how to reach you and we’ll be in touch.











Author: Joshua Dueck

Date: April 28th, 2020

Changed in the Baja — Tyler’s experience in Mexico

From Builds with his family when he was younger to spending 13 weeks in our Academy program, Tyler shares how he was changed by his time in Mexico.

Living in a first-world country and being raised by supportive parents is not something that everyone in the world experiences. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to every activity and sport you can imagine and eventually found my passion in the arts. I went to voice lessons, dance classes, participated in school shows, and eventually turned my love for music and the theatre into a part-time job where I taught dance and performed in theatre.

From a young age, I was aware that not everyone lived the way I did. Both of my parents work with vulnerable people and have always instilled a sense of gratitude in my sister and I. We learned to appreciate what we had and to always give back to those who are in need.

I was introduced to Mexico at a young age 

As a family, we were involved with LiveDifferent for many years. We would go every couple of summers on a Build down to Mexico and volunteer with groups that came down from Canada. After spending a significant amount of time down there as a kid, I quickly realized that there were people living in extreme poverty and this exposure helped me to be more compassionate for others and motivated me to continue helping people back home. 

In the spring of 2018, I began to think long and hard about my future. I needed to make some decisions soon and if I waited to attend university, I’d need to find something productive to do in the meantime. Then I remembered the LiveDifferent Academy program and decided that it would be my next step.

After some quick consideration and a conversation with my parents, I registered and began fundraising for the upcoming semester. After several months of counting down the days till September, I jumped right into the program with full force.

Learning on the ground

Before arriving in the Baja, I had made the decision to embrace every aspect and get the most out of my experience. The program proved to be beyond my expectations and lit a fire inside me that I didn’t know existed. 

I studied current issues happening in Canada and internationally through Social Justice classes, was exposed to Spanish and quickly gained basic language skills that helped me develop stronger relationships during my time in the communities, was introduced to some of the kindest and most hard-working people I have ever met, and I created lasting friendships along the way. 

And I also changed quite a bit, too.

The week that changed everything

They call it Week in the Life and it’s one of the most difficult but rewarding parts of the program. For seven days, you find yourself in the shoes of vulnerable people and experience the hardships that they face each day. While it’s done in a completely safe environment, that doesn’t shield you from experiencing new levels of exhaustion that I didn’t think were possible. 

As days bled into each other, I gained a new understanding and was filled with gratitude for all the opportunities that I have been given. On top of that, I also have a new sense of respect for the people that work tirelessly under difficult conditions to support their families. 

The world needs more empathy and this is a week that I think everyone should experience.

The journey continues

LiveDifferent’s Academy gives you a first-hand look into the everyday life and struggles of people living in poverty while helping you process each experience. The time is filled with unexpected surprises and memorable moments around every corner, making it an experience that will never be forgotten. 

I came back motivated to continue working in International Development and looking for ways to serve others. It helped me on the path to finding my passion and has led to incredible new adventures in my life that I had never dreamed possible. 

I’m forever grateful for the community of people that embraced me and made me feel welcomed during those 13 weeks in Mexico. Each one of them has left a mark on my life that inspires me to this day. 

Our Academy program is a 13-week, cross-cultural experience that begins each September.

Author: Joshua Dueck

Date: February 20th, 2020