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

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


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

Get on the Bus

When you have supportive friends who want to help make trips to Mexico more accessible for larger groups by hooking you up with a sweet charter bus… being floored with gratitude is probably a normal emotion, right?

A huge THANK YOU to our friends at Buckle Charters for helping us land a coach bus that we will be using to help shuttle volunteers down to Mexico and back. As a result, departing for a Build to Mexico from Western Canada has its perks. Here’s how it works…

How it works

We’re able to offer the charter bus service once a minimum donation is met. Not only can it reduce the fundraising required for travel by up to 70%, but we are also able to issue tax receipts which makes it easier to fundraise for.

For a group of 35 volunteers heading to Mexico, choosing to travel by our coach bus could save them up to $20,000 on transportation costs.

You can learn more about Buckle Charters by visiting their website here.

Interested in learning more about our Group Builds?

Learn More

Author: Joshua Dueck

Date: November 26th, 2018

From the Ground Up

This week was our build week. Instead of a house build like LiveDifferent normally does, we decided to switch things up a bit and work on a schoolhouse project. This Build was very different compared to my other LiveDifferent Build experience. The school was built out of wood entirely and had two classrooms inside the one building. During the last day of our “Week in the Life” experience we had spread the dirt that the concrete pad was poured on. The concrete pad was spread and dried during the few weeks between Week in the Life and our build week. When we got to the site to actually start our build, there was just a pad on top of a pile of dirt.

As the days went by, our Build slowly took shape. I had the most fun working on the roof, from snaking through the support beams to slathering on tar for the shingles. From on top of the roof I could see all the way out to the ocean and also could see the next town, Camalu. I could see the entire build site and watch everyone do their jobs. The part that I didn’t enjoy was painting. It was especially difficult because the wind kept blowing sand and dirt onto the walls we were trying to paint. But, in the end, it was all worth it because the school looks beautiful with its gray walls and white trim. During the week, we ran into some travelers from Tennessee and some circumstances led them to helping us for a day or two. It was so cool to meet these people and have them help with building the school.

This was a pretty important Build, not just to me, but important to all the families and students who live in the surrounding area. The school that the students were using was four garage doors and a tarp as the roof. There was no flooring so the classroom floor was just bare dirt. When we got towards the end of our build, the students took down their old classroom, and seeing their faces of glee and excitement taking it down was indescribable. The build was a fantastic experience and it is such an amazing feeling to see the school all set up and see it wiz past as we drive down the highway.

-George (Jorge), Academy Student 2015

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: December 4th, 2015

Desert Adventures

For the last two and half months we have adventured to many different places that are reflective of the Mexican culture. A few of my favourites were a volcano hike, Lucha Libre, Globos market, and the Baja 1000 off-road race. All of these excursions were terrific outings where we met many kind people and experienced Mexican culture. The volcano hike was an interesting and smart way to view a new part of Mexico. We traveled to a lovely beach and, from there, hiked an hour up a beautiful volcano. The volcano has not been active for many, many years. Hiking up was a leg killer because it was all up hill, but reaching the top made it all worth it. The views were spectacular and breathtaking. There is something so mindful and peaceful about being on the top of a mountain and soaking in the beauty that Mexico has.

Lucha Libre is a form of entertainment wrestling widely enjoyed throughout Mexico. Mexican wrestling is characterized by colourful masks. The wearing of masks has developed special significance and matches are sometimes challenged where the loser must permanently remove his mask, which is a done with a high degree of weight attached. I am aware that this type of entertainment is a huge part of the Mexican tradition, which we haven’t seen a lot of.  The wresting event that we watched was held at Globos, a market that is held every weekend in a nearby town, San Quintin. Many items are sold at the market including clothing, food, and toys. The owners of the market were celebrating their 10 year anniversary in business and to celebrate they hosted a Lucha Libre event.  Many people gathered for this experience because it is a very popular tradition in Mexico.

The Baja 1000 is an off-road desert race that takes place on Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula the third week of November every year. It draws in thousands of spectators, sponsors and media. We were able to participate in the Baja 1000 festivities by travelling to Ensenada for the pre-race fan fair and spending the next day watching the race on the track near our home. The Baja 1000 allows various types of vehicles to compete on the same course, from dirt bikes, atv’s, dune buggies, trucks, and custom fabricated race vehicles. The name of the event can be misleading as the mileage varies each year because the track changes, but essentially it is about 1300-1500km’s! You can imagine how long it must take! The racers who are able to complete the race usually finish in an average of 18-22 hrs.

All of these outings have been so much fun and have made the LDA experience so much more enhanced by participating locally with Mexican culture. With only three weeks left, I hope to attend more fun filled excursions in order to soak up more culture and knowledge about Mexico.

– Grace, Academy Student 2015

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 27th, 2015

No Hombres? No Problem

This week I attended our different volunteer positions and visited my host family one evening. I really enjoy going to Buen Samaritano, because I like the work I get the opportunity to do there. I enjoy the reactions I get when I ask for the “man’s” job.  Another female student, Danica, and I showed up one day, ready to mix concrete to set up some posts for a clothes line.  We received a confused look and a ‘No hombres?’ (No men?) from the women in charge.  “No, muy fuerte!” we assured her as we flexed our arms jokingly.  She then led us to the lines and we worked for three hours mixing and laying concrete into meter deep holes. We finished 3 out of the 7 holes.  Many people here have such a strong idea of what women and men’s roles are.  In Canada, I have worked as a carpenter, a landscaper, and a construction worker, all of which are traditionally deemed jobs for men. A number of times I have gotten weird reactions, but I like to prove that women are just as capable of doing labour work as men are.


Mareena is another reason I like working at Buen Samaritano.  She works there and it feels awesome to be able to connect with someone from the area.  She speaks enough English that we can have conversations and she helps me with my Spanish.  Mareena likes it when we tell her about Canada. Her questions are filled with wonder as we tell her about the weather and how different it is from Mexico.  Getting to know her has definitely made this volunteering experience better.

I have never been the socialite but I have really enjoy being with my host family. We visit them one evening a week, in order learn more about Mexican culture, practice our Spanish, and get to know other people in the community. I love preparing dinner together, joking around, and laughing about our miscommunications. Dinner is great and the food is amazing, so I always compliment Hilda on her cooking. She is so funny; she will point to my stomach and say “nada!” (nothing) and then grab her own and say “manteca!” (fat) – she thinks I’m too skinny.  We laugh about this exchange because it happens every time.

LiveDifferent’s motto is, “Life is about people”, and I’m beginning to see what this really means by taking in people’s stories and getting to know their personalities. It’s such a powerful feeling to really get to be a part of a person’s life, and to impact them in a way that you could not have if you hadn’t taken the time to build these relationships.  Sharing moments and memories with others is something I’ve learned is so important. Life really is about that special connection you share with everyone who enters and exits your life.

– Alexandria, LiveDifferent Academy Student 2015

Author: LiveDifferent

Date: November 16th, 2015

Time – An Undervalued Luxury

This week was very challenging, but also very rewarding. I was able to learn so much about poverty and about those experiencing poverty that I’ve never thought about before. One of the hardest things I learned this week is how little free time people have to spend with family and friends. There is always something to do. What do you do after you are done work for the day?  Typically, one would go home, make dinner, do a couple chores, and then relax until bedtime. What if simple things like cooking becomes a chore or a challenge?  The reality for some people is that they have to continue working hard as soon as they get home. They need to cook, some over an open fire, to make repairs to their homes, do yard work, laundry, and so much more. It’s crazy to think that after people work a 9 hour day in the sun in the fields, or rock picking, they have to come home and do more hard work. Back home, when I finish a day of work I come home and watch TV or sit and hangout with my family. Understanding this is also a reality for many working people back in Canada too, it made me realize just how lucky we are to have some of the luxuries at home that make those daily chores less stressful and time consuming.

No task is simple when living in these conditions. For example cooking is much simpler when we have a stove, countertop, and numerous cooking utensils at our reach, but for many people, and for us this past week, we were cooking over an open fire. It is hard to imagine that food can be an uncertainty in people’s lives. If it is raining, then the fire won’t start, which means you’re unable to make dinner for your family. Living in this uncertainty this week was a new concept for me. It made it very stressful and made me anxious every time we were about to cook. Throughout the week our timing with cooking food improved, as we always tried to get most of the cooking done before dark. It is amazing how much you can’t do once it starts to get dark. Again, it is a totally new concept as I have always lived with electricity.

This week has taught me so many things and I am beyond thankful to have gotten to experience it all. One of the largest lessons I learned is to never underestimate one person’s ability and strength. Working alongside locals this week and getting a taste of what their everyday lives showed me how strong people can be. While we were working alongside them we needed to take breaks, to drink water, and give our bodies a chance to stretch, but they do not take these breaks and continue working for long periods of time. They know what they need to do to provide for their families and they are willing to do it. One of my favourite moments this week was when we were rock picking on Friday. After we worked for about 5 hours in the sun, we were done picking but now needed to bring up all the bags of rocks. At this point the workers became less serious about getting as many rocks as they could and starting joking around with each other and talking more with us. It was nice to see that even after a long workday they were able to joke with each other and try to make their days more enjoyable.

I have found a greater respect for those experiencing poverty, especially those we were able to work alongside.  I am very grateful we had this opportunity to try and understand some of the daily challenges they face. We learned so much this week about our group, poverty, and ourselves in general.

– Danica, LiveDifferent Academy Student 2015

Author: LiveDifferent


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