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

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

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

The Man with the Blue Hat

He didn’t always work with us as a contractor, his daughter didn’t always have a safe home to live in, and his hat wasn’t always blue.

It all started in December of 1996 when Nicolas crossed the border from Haiti with his family to settle in the community of Nuevo Renacer. He had learned to construct and smooth-coat houses back in Haiti and eventually found himself regularly employed as one of our local contractors. Unfortunately, even his construction skills weren’t enough to significantly help his oldest daughter out of unsafe living conditions. Riselena’s house, among other issues, had a leaky roof, which left her place damp and mouldy during rainy periods. When we told Nicolas that we were going to build a house for his daughter and that he was going to lead the construction, he was overjoyed.

During the Build, Nicolas shared stories and many laughs alongside his daughter and the students of Seycove Secondary as they worked together—all while wearing his signature beige, straw hat. Stylishly protected from the harsh sunlight, Nicolas led the team as the house came together, brick by brick.  

At this point during a Build, members from the community play a big part in getting ready for “dedication day” as they come together and help paint the house in the colour chosen by the family. For this special house, Riselena had chosen sky blue.

The paint was dry and the house was finished. As the community and students gathered together along the coast, the ocean breeze was blowing and clouds were scattered across the sky. It was a no hats required kind of day, but for Nicolas, this was definitely going to be part of the celebration. To everyone’s surprise, he had painted his hat sky blue to match the colour of his daughters new home and, standing along the shoreline with community members, volunteers, and his daughter, Nicolas sang out in joy and celebration of new beginnings.

Each and every house dedication is filled with emotion! We can’t help but wonder what it will look like when you are standing there, celebrating with a family that you’ve become close with as they receiving a fresh start and enter their home for the first time.

Start your journey to the celebration today.

Author: Joshua Dueck

Date: May 1st, 2019

Fierce on the Worksite and on Camera — Q&A with Natalia

Natalia and her school worked really hard, making a big difference in the lives of a special community in the Dominican Republic.

Coming down with her school, the group knew that they were going to be building a house for a family as well as a much-needed medical clinic that would serve the nearby communities. What they didn’t know was that they’d be swept up in an end-of-day photoshoot on the worksite.

We know that kindness takes a bit of effort and can sometimes be a little messy, so along with photographer Chaydin Inverarity, we wanted to highlight this and surprised the group at the end of a long, tiring work day.

How did you first hear about us?

I heard about LiveDifferent Builds in my first year of high school. Gonzaga, my high school, does annual Builds with LiveDifferent.

Why did you want to join us as a volunteer in the Dominican Republic?

As soon as I saw the pictures and heard some of the stories from my peers and teachers who had come back from the trip, I immediately knew I wanted to participate as a volunteer.

What was the highlight from your Build?

There are so many great memories I have from that trip it’s hard to pick just one.

One of my fondest memories I have is when I met this sweet little boy named David. Every Build day, we took a lunch break at a nearby school/church that was down the road from the site. Dozens of kids would rush us to finish our lunch to come outside and play with them. Some of us even went to see the kids before we went to eat. Once I stepped onto the playground for the first time I was astounded. My fellow peers had all found a child to play with, everyone was smiling and laughing (it really was a sight to see). I vividly remember seeing a little boy off the side, not really engaging in any games or interacting with anyone. With the broken Spanish I had, I mustered up the courage to walk over to this little boy and ask what his name was and if he wanted to play. In a heartbeat, he climbed onto my back and we started running around with everyone else. The smile that grew on his face is something I hope to never forget.

Looking around that playground, I can honestly say I’ve never seen such an abundance of genuine laughter and smiles all in one place all at the same time.

Another memory I have was probably a few days into building on the site. In the middle of the site, I don’t exactly remember how or why but I paused and just looked around me and saw everyone working together. Everywhere I looked there were bucket lines, cement mixes, pickaxes and shovels being put into use to get the job done. Seeing everyone work together as a unit was so surreal. It then occurred to me that we were really doing it, the house and the clinic were slowly coming together; the walls being built to ensure a family’s safety, a roof to ensure that when it rained the family shouldn’t worry, rooms for the sick to come and wait to be treated. It became clear at that moment that it was really happening.

You were just crushing some of those cement mixes. How did you find the work?

I will be completely honest when I say that working on this Build was one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever endured. The mixes were not easy, and if I needed to, I’d swap out to catch my breath. Nonetheless, I tried to get in on as many mixes or bucket lines as I could, which allowed me to get to know the construction workers pretty well since they spoke Creole and I could speak French.

After realizing you were in the middle of a surprise photo shoot, what did you think when you saw the final pictures and video?

I’m not really one for pictures, I’ll be honest. That being said, the surprise photo shoot and video really pushed me out of my comfort zone and caught me by surprise. The fact that I’m in Instagram posts, campaign posters and videos that are seen by so many people still baffles me. Every time one of my friends sees me on their feed, they’ll screenshot it and send it to me and be like, “look it’s you!”. I’m taken aback each time but it gives me an opportunity to reminisce, which I appreciate.

What did you take away from your experience on a LiveDifferent Build?

LiveDifferent’s saying “life is about people” proved to be true each and every day of that Build. While I got the chance to be part of something that gave a family a home and would benefit the health of the community, I am eternally grateful for everyone on that trip that gave me something that—while intangible—still serves as something for me to hang onto, to look back at and to remind me that there are still people in this world that genuinely want to do good. I am incredibly thankful for the community for opening up their hearts to us and making us a part of their story. When I find myself thinking back to those 8 days that would go on to change my life, my heart honestly just feels so full.

Interested in making a difference in the lives of others or want to learn more?

Author: Joshua Dueck

Date: February 5th, 2019

Hope is Spreading Through the Island, in Memory of Eileen Jackson

In March of 2018, two families received safe, dry homes in the Dominican Republic and over 300 children were able to enjoy nutritious meals at our school in Haiti. It was all thanks to our dear friend Valerie Pippy (or “Val”, as we all call her) and as the impact of her efforts continues to ripple across the island, we wanted to reflect on how it all came to be.

Who is Val?

Back in 2016, Valerie jumped at the chance to spend 10 days with us in the Dominican Republic as part of an employer-sponsored Build through her company, T.E. Wealth.

Upon returning home, Val was motivated to do more and began organizing a Build for her family and friends to experience together. Sadly, her mother, Eileen Jackson, passed away during this time and as a result, the Build moved forward in her honour. Valerie continued organizing and fundraising creatively, using her upcoming retirement as a platform for raising support and donating money that her mother left for her.

The Result: Tangible Impact

These fundraising efforts and her team’s work on the ground have had a significant impact for many on the Island.

In the Dominican Republic, as a result of the Eileen Jackson Memorial Build, two families now have quality housing and are able to sleep each night with a solid roof over their heads. In addition, over 300 children at Ecole L’union in Haiti have been able to enjoy a nutritious meal each week for the entire school year.

You Too Can Get Involved

Over the years, a passionate and diverse group of people from all across Canada have gotten behind numerous projects that positively impact the lives of others. Some have saved portions of their paycheques in order to volunteer with us, while others have dedicated their birthdays (or in Val’s case, her retirement) to raising funds and awareness.

However each person’s journey unfolds, making a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of others often simply begins with saying “yes”. Who knows what ripples of change might be waiting for YOUR decision to LiveDifferent?

To read more, check out Peter Jackson’s article “Volunteers build hope in the Dominican“, published in The Independent. Oh… and Val’s already planning her next Build for 2019.

Author: Joshua Dueck

Date: August 8th, 2018

Water Returned to a Special Rural Community

Facing intermittent electricity, one community in the Dominican countryside has set up a system to ensure that each house has access to water all day. This system relies on a water pump, but what happens when the pump fails?
Thankfully, through direct donations and people deciding to add a little extra to their fundraising goals, our Emergency Relief and Community Development Fund was in great shape to help the community buy a new pump.
Watch the video below.

Looking for a way to help ensure stability in the communities we work in? Contribute to our Emergency Relief and Community Development Fund.

Author: Joshua Dueck

Date: May 9th, 2018

Megan’s March Break Build

Megan's March Break Build

What Megan had to say about her Build.

“These ten days had such a huge impact on me. They changed the way I view love and connection, blurred the lines between friends and family and opened my eyes to the complexities of poverty. I’ve learned about the nature of humanity and the joy of togetherness. I met some of the hardest working and kindest people ever and was lucky enough to hear some of their stories. I’ve fallen completely in love with a country full of life, and before I’d even left I knew I needed to come back- I can’t stay away.”

Sign up for the experience of a lifetime!


Author: LiveDifferent

Date: March 29th, 2017

Cleaning supplies for Nuevo Renacer – Nov 9th 2016

The Dominican Republic is currently facing one of the harshest and rainy “wet” seasons in the last 5-7 years. Waterways are overflowing and some homes have even been swept into close by rivers. Although our ongoing development in Nuevo Renacer has helped reduce the impact of the flooding, in recent days the heavy rains have caused the waters to rise higher, creating difficult situations for many families. The water drains fairly quickly after the rain stops, however, many homeowners are struggling to avoid mold and bacteria from occurring.

One way that Sandra, a community leader in Nuevo Renacer, suggested we could help is by providing cleaning products. Using money from LiveDifferent’s ‘Emergency Relief and Community Development Fund’, our staff purchased cleaning products that Sandra is distributing where needed. This is a small example of how the fund, and an ongoing relationship with the communities we work in, can make a difference.

Contribute to the ‘Emergency Relief and Community Development Fund’

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 9th, 2016

St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School Blogs and Updates

April 23rd
We arrived safely to the Dominican Republic on Saturday evening. We met with the Live Different staff, and checked into our resort room.
April 24th
On Saturday morning we attended mass. We were wearing our LiveDifferent t-shirts and actually got called up to the altar to represent the organization! A student from our group said a small speech about why are here and what our mission is. We even made it to the local news channel!
After mass, we visited a community where LiveDifferent has previously built houses. It was a crowded community of about 3000 people that live by a river. Because of rain, the river would often overflow and flood some homes. We were able to meet the families for which we were building houses. We had the opportunity to speak with them and ask them about their life. They were very open and friendly, and grateful for what is soon going to be their new home. We finished off the day perfectly with a nice dinner and karaoke!
April 25th 2016: Project Day 1
Today was a very exciting and productive day. We woke up to a little bit of rain, and got ready to head to the worksite. Before we arrived, we stopped at the two houses the previous year’s Life Different group had built – it was emotional for the people who returned this year. They got to see the house they built and how it was very well taken care of, the beautiful family that is still so grateful for their new home, and the fact that their old house would have been flooded due to the rain this morning. For the newcomers, it was amazing to see the expressions and joy this family had because of the new house, and because of Life Different. Thinking about it now, we are excited to see that our students, with LiveDifferent’s help, will have the privilege to build another beautiful home for yet another beautiful family by the end of this week.
After the bumpy bus ride to our current worksite, we were given instructions and got right into work. Some of us mixed cement, others carried bricks and buckets or shoveled dirt, and others spoke to the family through our trusted translator Rafael or visited a family just a few houses down to experience a “Day In the Life” of that family. We learned so much about what it takes to build a house, and it was quite different from what we were used to.
Everyone has been working very hard. We’re all strong, determined, and happy to be where we are. We’re working alongside contractors, who taught us and helped us build the house. Luckily it was cloudy today, and it would sometimes rain which was refreshing. It was very muddy, and our house backs onto a steep valley. One of the families we’re building for consisted of a pregnant woman, her husband, and two children. The house they are currently living in is wooden house that’s close to a river.
At around noon we left to go to pastor Garcia’s church for lunch. We were all together, smiling, laughing, sharing stories and eating our food. A few kids came by, and they loved to hang on our backs and play tag with each other. We would practice speaking Spanish by asking them their names and how they were feeling today. I noticed how many kids here in the Dominican Republic do not wear shoes outside. I didn’t know whether it was their choice, or whether they couldn’t afford any, or didn’t have any. It was pouring rain and the beginning of our lunch, and the kids would just walk barefoot on the cold, hard and slippery cement, but it was like it didn’t bother them one bit.
After lunch we returned to the worksite. We continued our hard work for a few more hours before we left to go back to the resort. By the end of the work day, we literally put our blood, sweat, and tears into this house. It is an experience that will stay with us forever, and change the family’s life for the better.
April 26th 2016: Project Day 2
Today was an easier day because we weren’t so overwhelmed with this new environment. Also, the family we were building for was very generous; they cooked a local meal we call fried pig, but to them its called “chicharon”. It was absolutely delicious! They made us feel at home by eating and laughing with us. It was very nice and heart warming to know that they accepted us into their home. Also when it came to the house building, we worked to finish off leveling the floors and started the smooth coating on the front of the house. And of course the kids were out to play today, jumping on peoples backs, talking and laughing with us. We also started playing basketball with them, but our competitive natures came out and it became a teacher and student game.
April 27th 2016: Project Day 3
The houses are now halfway done, but there’s still a lot to do. We learned to communicate with the contractors through hand movements and simple Spanish phrases like “agua”, “aqui” and “si” and “no”. When the contractors needed more cement mixture they would shout “mekla, mekla” and we would all form a bucket line to pass down the mixture. They would also shout “agua, agua” when they needed water and “no mas” for no more.
After the workday, we took showers and got ready for a nice dinner in the neighbouring city. We had dinner right by the sea, and it was beautiful and delicious. At some point during the meal, a mariachi band sang to us. It made the night even more special.
April 28th : Project Day 4; Final Project Day
I was excited and nervous about today because I really hoped we could paint, and because I had my Day in the Life experience in the afternoon. When we arrived at the worksite, as always, we were surprised at how hardworking the contractors are. They would always leave after us, arrive before us, and have a much shorter lunch than us. Because of them, we learned how to build a house, and because of them we were able to paint today.
The priority was to level the floors. A group of people pick-axed the dirt from the land across the road and brought it into the house, a group sifted sand that would be used to create a mixture (“mekla”) for the smooth coat of the house, and a group painted. We all had our designated jobs to do, we had music, and we just enjoyed it all. Although our jobs were hard, we had an amazing team of students, contractors and LiveDifferent leaders that made it a lot more fun.
After lunch, I headed off with two of my classmates and translator Anthony for Day in the Life. We visited a single and unemployed mother of five daughters, who also took care of a one-year-old son who wasn’t even hers. We helped them clean the house by sweeping and mopping, and we helped make dinner. They taught us how to make chicken and rice, and we even tasted it. It was really good! One of the daughters is actually a singer, and she sang a song for us. It was beautiful! She told us how she won a singing competition when she was only twelve! The mother was telling us how she spends most of her income on transporting her daughters to school because they live so far away from it. Their house was actually build by LiveDifferent, and the family was still so overwhelmed and grateful that now they can sleep soundly in a dry place when it rains. It was great to see that even after three years they took care of their home very well. We knew that the homes we were building would also be taken care of very well.
April 29th : House Dedication Day
Today was not a work day. In the morning we visited a monkey jungle, and the ceremony for house-dedication will begin in the afternoon. The monkey jungle was very fun! We had little monkeys eating out of our hands and sitting on top of our heads. We learned that the proceeds of the tickets actually go to the medical and dental clinic in the back of the jungle. There are volunteers who offer free services towards those in the community that need it most. It was very cool to see that.
At around 2:00 PM Friday, we all wore our LiveDifferent t-shirts and headed to the worksites. Students who came on the trip on the previous year gave speeches and handed the keys to the families. It was very emotional. A lot of us cried because we put so much effort and hard work into these two houses, and we were so happy that now the families would not have water up to their knees when it rains. The faces on the families was priceless. The children were so happy. These houses would not only belong to one family, but everyone in the community was welcome inside especially when it rains. It was so beautiful to see how much we’ve accomplished and how far we’ve come as a team.
After the ceremony, we said our goodbyes to the families. It was very difficult since we built such strong relationships with each other. A girl became best friends with one of our students, others gave bracelets and letters. It was so sweet, which made it more difficult to say goodbye. When we arrived back to the resort, we were given a very motivational and inspiring speech by one of the LiveDifferent representatives – Cole. Some of us ended in tears. After that, we said our goodbyes to the LiveDifferent workers that guided us on the trip. We formed some really deep connections with people during these eight days. It was so sad to leave such an amazing place filled with such amazing people. We had such a great time and experience that we will never forget.
April 30th : Departure Day
Our flight leaves in the late afternoon, so we had all morning to do whatever we wanted. We sipped our last “Banana Mamas” and “Pina Coladas”, played our last games of pool, and ate our last meals from the buffet in the Dominican Republic by the sea. We all had fun and shared our last moments here together. We said our final goodbyes to the staff of the resort with whom we also built relationships, and the LiveDifferent leaders. This day was also full of tears. Although some of these memories will fade, the future of the people to whom we build houses will be forever changed. This is just the beginning of some of the amazing and life-changing things my team and I will do in our lives.
– Viktoria, St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School Volunteer

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: April 28th, 2016