Guts and Grace
A Circle in the Dirt, and a Handful of Bottle Caps
For many of us, our childhood was a time spent goofing off with friends. It was a period in which going on adventures and diving into our imaginations replaced the bills, responsibility, and the world of adulthood which surrounded us but remained in our peripherals until we got older. On a LiveDifferent Trip in Mexico, it is not uncommon for our work site to be surrounded by energetic kids waiting to play. In an area in which many are struggling day to day, and poverty can be seen all around, the kids serve as this reminder of our own childhood and the universality of a child’s imaginations and joy for laughter and play.
On a four day build, the hardest part of the day may be spent playing with the queue of smiling kids waiting for piggyback rides, to be spun around, or thrown in the air. You might opt to go start framing or tar the roof because you need a rest! But of course this is a task we embrace, and the smiles and laughter which fill the worksite makes the lower back pain from four kids hanging off you totally worth it.
Unfortunately, not every child is able to enjoy their childhood to the same extent. More than I anticipated when I first came down to Mexico, some of the children we met may have been young, but they carried themselves with the maturity and resolve of a person way ahead of their years. For a variety of reasons and circumstances, these children have to grow up, and grow up fast. When you first meet one of these kids, it stirs up a mixture of emotions. When you see them taking care of their siblings and interacting with us and the other kids around them with such maturity and responsibility it can be very humbling and inspiring. On the other hand, seeing a child who has to shoulder so many responsibilities at such a young age can be difficult.
While down in Mexico, I had the privilege of meeting such a boy. His name is Ernesto. He is the older brother to three adorable sisters, and he is eleven years old. When we first met he had the presence of a parent, but with a circle in the dirt and a handful of bottle caps I saw him become just another energetic kid filled with laughter, and I gained a new friendship I’ll never forget.
I first met Ernesto when we went to share dinner with the family we were about to share our five day adventure with. Immediately you could tell that while the picture on our wall said he was eleven, the boy standing in front of us shaking our hand was a boy ahead of his years. While we all sat in a circle eating pizza and getting to know each other, Ernesto sat on the edge of us observing this new sight. Over the next two days, Ernesto walked around the work site watching us, reviewing the process and the build like a foreman at a worksite.
While other kids got tickled and spun around, he took the hammer we gave him and quietly worked alongside us. When he finished the task he was given, he would give us a quick nod as if to say, “ok, what can I do next?”
I still remember one moment when we were all chasing the kids around trying to catch them as they tried to jump on our backs or tickle our sides, and Ernesto watched over them like a parent at the park, making sure no one got too close to the edge or got hurt if they fell down. He cared for his home and his family, but also for everyone else around him. By the fourth day Ernesto had begun to open up. His strong handshake at every greeting and farewell was replaced with the high five and fist bump we received from the other kids. He showed us how to shoot a slingshot and even had a competition, and smiles and chuckles began to make their way into our daily interactions with him. However, it was when I obtained a few bottle caps that our friendship completely changed.
In Mexico some of the kids play a game with bottle caps. You draw a circle in the dirt while each player “bets” as many bottle caps as they want and everyone else matches them and places them inside the circle. Using another one of your bottle caps, you flick it with your fingers to try and knock as many of the others out of the circle as you can, and you keep the ones you do. When I showed Ernesto my handful of bottle caps I had accumulated, he ran into his house and pulled out his significantly larger collection. With a smirk, he nodded me over to come and play. Something in his face told me I was in trouble. Ever get that feeling that you were about to get taken to school? We played for what felt like hours! I must say, given all we had was bottle caps and a circle in the dirt, it was a lot of fun! We both played like kids, amazed at the good shots made by one another, laughing at the horrible misses, and egging each other on to bet more bottle caps. We even drew a crowd watching us as other volunteers and Ernesto’s family joined in on our laughter over the missed shots, lost wages, or triumphant wins.
It became quite obvious however that there was a reason Ernesto had such a large collection when my handful quickly dwindled down to just two! By the end of the day Ernesto was the new proud owner of what was once my collection of Coca Cola bottle caps. He jokingly poked my pockets as if to see if I had any more to bet, and I would turn out my pockets as he laughed and shook the stockpile he had accumulated in his pocket. I am twenty-two, and he is eleven, but it was on! I promised him I’d be back tomorrow with more bottle caps ready to play, and he smiled and just rubbed his hands together like he was already counting the bottle caps he would add to his pocket.
After rummaging through the recycling bin at our house, I was back with a vengeance on dedication day! When I saw Ernesto standing with his family in front of their house prior to dedication, I looked at him and shook my pocket full of bottle caps and the bright smile on his face quickly turned to a devilish smirk as he rubbed his hands and pulled out a handful from the abundance in his pocket, ready to whoop me once again. As I said before and I am sure he thought it too, once again, it was on! After the dedication and the delicious tamales the family prepared us, I found myself in a familiar spot behind the house, drawing a circle in the dirt and flicking our bottle caps to see who goes first. Even as he finally opened up and we played our game together, as a testament to his mature character even at his young age, Ernesto would give some of the other kids his bottle caps so that they could join in on the fun. It was a very inspiring sight. We spent the rest of the day flicking bottle caps together, game after game, until our fingers got sore. We both won games, and lost a few. When Ernesto would lose a game in one of his first shots and I would gain all the spoils, he would simply laugh at his gaff and joyfully throw a few more in the circle to play again. What started as one or two, quickly turned into three or four bottle caps being thrown into the circle as we jokingly teased one another to bet a few more. More than I’d care to admit, I would throw down four bottle caps in confidence and walk away empty handed and the sound of Ernesto shaking his growing collection behind me. We played for almost the entire time we were there, and we both got our chance to just hangout, have fun, and play like kids. When finally it was time to leave, I walked over to Ernesto and gave him the remainder of my bottle caps and he flashed his big smile we had become accustomed to the last few days and thanked me.
Who would have known that two people could have so much fun with just a handful of bottle caps that otherwise would have found their way to the bottom of our recycling bins if we had been back home? It was almost hard to believe that the boy playing and laughing with me and the other kids was the same boy who stood quietly on the edge watching over us on the first day we met the family. While Ernesto was a very mature boy and carried on his shoulders responsibilities most kids wouldn’t have to face, like all the other children like him, he is still a kid at heart. Despite his mature demeanor and strong presence on the first few days of the build, he was still a young boy and he loved to have fun.
In their circumstances, these kids are made to grow up so fast and it seems almost easy sometimes to forget just how old they really are. However, every child deserves to have the same childhood we are privileged to have, memories, filled with the fun and laughter and play that many of us remember so fondly and hold on to. Playing with Ernesto, getting to know him better and forming a friendship with him was one of the greatest memories I have from my trip. Even though he is half my age, I can still look at him and learn lessons of responsibility and caring for others, while not forgetting how to have fun and enjoy life. This was one of my most precious memories that I have taken home with me from Mexico and as silly as it may sound, I may not have gotten to experience this friendship, have so much fun, or meet such an inspiring and amazing individual, if it wasn’t for a circle in the dirt and a handful of bottle caps.
– Andrew, LiveDifferent Intern, Mexico 2014
Throughout the course of our lives, we often experience what I usually call “panarama moments,” – a split second where time seems to slow and sound ceases to exist. These moments tend to stand out in our minds and allow us to fully take in our surroundings, to experience everything that is going on around us in a pure and focused way, and to find a new appreciation for the situation at hand.
On the second build day of the second public trip in Mexico this summer, I experienced one of those ‘panorama moments’. A group of us were up on the roof, nailing trim and plywood to the frame. I stood up from one of the boards I was nailing and for the first time since climbing up there, I took a thorough look at everything around me. The build site was up on top of a hill and you could see the community of Las Aves for miles, it seemed.
A dust cloud plundered a cluster of houses in the distance while the wind made my eyes water. Turning around, I could see over the tarp fence on the property and I watched one girl from the family wash blue paint from her hair in the basin that served as a clothes washer, then walk back towards the house build only to have a cousin smear more on her face and in her hair. I could see my new friends hammering nails around me and the Mom and Dad of the family carrying paint trays in and out of their new house.
In that moment, I felt the roof under my feet and knew there was a floor, walls, windows and doors holding it up. I realized that I was standing on what soon would be a home for a hard working, loving, and well deserving family.
I felt a deep sense of joy and anticipation for what we would soon present to these five people – the keys to their new home. Those keys would represent shelter, hope, safety, and a boost forward for this family. In that moment in particular I felt a strong connection with the incredible individuals I was lucky enough to work with in the past week.
I took a deep breath and let it all sink in and then I picked my hammer up and returned to work, filled with a refreshed sense of purpose and drive. Those few seconds felt like a lifetime, and the importance and images of my rooftop realizations are going to come to mind every time I think of my time in Mexico.
-Abby, LiveDifferent Intern, Mexico 2014
There’s No Place Like Home
It can be overwhelming to travel to a foreign country, to work with people you’ve never met, and see things you’ve never seen. However, after coming to Mexico as a volunteer two years ago I knew that I had to come back, and deciding to be an intern in Mexico this summer was one of the easiest choices I’ve ever made. Although the choice was easy, I cannot say that I did not have concerns about being here for a month. So many thoughts went through my head before leaving; would I make friends? Would it still be new and exciting? Would I get homesick? Not long after arriving though, all my questions were answered. Within five minutes of meeting my fellow interns, I knew it was going to be an amazing month.
Being an intern was different than volunteering, it gave me an opportunity to work on leadership skills, but it also allowed me to see the trip from a different perspective. Watching the volunteers grow, change, and appreciate life during their week in Mexico is such an awesome experience. It really brings me back to when I was seeing and experiencing all that hero holiday has to offer for the first time. Listening to all the open-minded conversations during the debriefings is such a rewarding experience, and something I love doing every night.
It is such an amazing feeling be able to wake up every morning knowing that you will be one step closer to changing the lives of the families who are receiving homes. I always find it interesting that in Canada doing labour that we do here is strenuous and something I would more than likely complain about, but when you are building a house for a family in need, it barely feels like work. Every day you experience feelings you’ve never felt, and every build is unique. Being able to hammer all day, while laughing hysterically with the family and team is such a humbling feeling. Watching the families open up throughout the week is always so wonderful to watch, and their smiles are what keep me going each day no matter how tired I am. Coming on this trip you expect to change the family’s life, and you have no idea how much they change yours in return.
The relationships that you build in Mexico are something that always stand out to me. It’s hard to believe that people you spend so little time with could become your best friends, and people you confide in once back in Canada. Although provinces may separate us, I am confident in saying that I could call up almost all of the volunteers at any given moment and have a friend to talk to. After being on a Hero Holiday, you are filled with so many emotions and dealing with them can be hard, especially at home with people who don’t always understand. But because of the tight bonds I’ve made down in Mexico, I always have someone to help me through hard days.
Summing up all the emotions I have about Mexico is fairly simple. Mexico is a place where I feel safe. It’s where I know I’m not judged. It’s where I find myself, and who I want to be as a person. Mexico is where I’ve made memories and friends that I’ll never forget. Mexico is my home, and like everyone knows; there’s no place like home.
– Emily, LiveDifferent Intern 2013
A Day Worth Waiting For
Intern week is dedicated to community projects and intern-community bonding. It’s a five day week that not many get to experience, and this year I was one of the 12 people who got to experience it in Mexico. We took part in projects such as painting the Las Aves community centre, checking in with previously built for LiveDifferent families, a community soccer game, and a community garbage pick up. Each day was different and life changing in its own way, and they were all able to teach us skills and lessons in life that no high school, university, or other schooling could teach us. We are just 12 people that were lucky enough to get this opportunity, and none of us will ever forget it.
Las Aves is a community that all of us interns have had a chance to get close with this summer. When we were told that we were doing a community clean up, all of us were excited to get started, and get cleaning. Upon arriving we were told that there may be a few locals there, and that if we could pair up with someone if we wanted to. To our surprise, nearly all of the people from the side of community we were cleaning showed up. To see that many people taking time out of their lives, forgetting their problems for one morning, to join together with us, was genuinely touching and there was nothing to do other than smile.
Right off the bat, I saw an elderly lady struggling to open her garbage bag. So I walked up and asked if if I could help her with it, and I opened the bag for her after she said ok. I then handed her one side of the bag and I held the other, and we started to walk and gather garbage. Although there was such a huge language barrier between us, we didn’t need to communicate through words, we were able to communicate through smiles and nods. For me it was such an uplifting experience, to help Marcella-Carmen clean her community. Although we moved slowly though the community because she had and injured foot, we still made our way around the whole community, and she even made sure I knew where her house was, because she was very proud of it.
Although I do not speak Spanish, I am able to understand the jist of it, and know a few words to speak. One moment that I will never forget is when Marcella-Carmen and I had been working for about an hour. The sun was beaming down, and we were getting near the top of the highest hill in the community. When we finally got to the top and had a second to take a breather, we simply looked out, and from there we could see the whole community. I couldn’t let the moment pass without telling her that she lived in an amazing and beautiful community. So I said “Bonita ” (which means beautiful), while over looking the community, because as I said, my Spanish is very broken. She looked back at me with the biggest smile on her face, and agreed, “Si, gracias”. This moment topped it all, it was such a momorable moment in my day, and I will never forget it.
At the end of this amazing day, we played soccer in the afternoon on the community soccer field built by LiveDifferent. All the little boys came out dressed in their soccer jerseys, and played against us, and some other kids, and even some parents from the community joined in on the game. It was a great time, with many laughs, smiles, and a little friendly teasing from both teams. Everyone worked as hard as they could to play against these kids who were superstars at the sport. In the end we all came together and shook hands, played around on the field for a little while, and then took some pictures all together. It shaped up to be one of the best, and most memorable days of the whole trip so far!
– Jeremy, LiveDifferent Intern, Mexico 2013
Intern Week in Dominican Republic
In between the two public trips, the interns have the privilege to stay in the Dominican Republic and take part in a week full of adventures. So far we have painted a school and experience ‘A Day in the Life’ and we have had time for intern and staff to get to know each other better. Today all the interns participated in a Leadership workshop. This establised what leadership is and how we as interns are leaders. During the workshop we completed multiple tasks and activities that gave us a better perspective on what leadership is.
When asked during the workshop what characteristics a great leader would express, there were so many different answers. I sat there thinking in my head that great leaders are not made up of the same characteristics, but they can have many. If you look at great leaders in your life they all have different characteristics and all have accomplished different things. When I look at all the leaders that I was sitting with, almost every person expressed unique leadership characteristics, and that’s what makes a great leader.
We were also shown a video that showed leadership from a dancing guy. The video involved a guy who had the courage to stand up at a festival, dance alone and look ridiculous. What he was doing was easy to follow and that is one key to being a leader. If a leader is easy to follow and sets an example, more people will join and it eventually becomes about the people and not the leader anymore. It also taught us the importance of being able to follow a leader and not always be the one making decisions.
Overall this workshop helped us understand more about leadership. It helped us know how to improve and become an even better leader. It gave us the chance to participate in activities and make new goals. It is information that will never leave my head!
Austin ~ Dominican Republic Intern 2013
Sarah’s Blog – Being Home (MX Intern 2012)
It’s funny how a place you go only once a year can become your home – more so than where you are actually from. I have spent the last month interning in Mexico and it has been beyond amazing. The people I have met for the first time or once again all have a special place in my heart.
Coming home to Mexico every year is what keeps me going when I’m back in Canada. It is my motivation to do well in school and save money for next summer to come back and do it all again. However each time is different – new people, new families, and new experiences. The diversity amongst those three things alone is something I yearn for.
Not only do I learn from the families I build for, which is a given, but I learn from the people I meet on each trip. Each of us has a purpose in life, and when we can all join together for the same purpose, we accomplish so much.
Each night we have debriefing where we talk about our day or discuss global awareness. You never do know what people will say when talking about poverty, statelessness or the like. Things you never expect from some people just blow you away at what they think. And when someone else says exactly what you are thinking, you know that you’re in the right place.
Something that keeps me coming back every year is getting to visit families I’ve built for in previous years. Going to see how they are doing, what has changed and how they have made their house a home is so rewarding. You get to see how you made a significant difference in their lives through them telling you how school is going for the kids, how work is going for the parents and many other things.
However the best out of all of this is their smiles. When they recognize you and realize that you’ve come back, there is nothing to compare that to. These families may hope that one day they will see you again, but they can never know for sure. But when you do go back to visit, they are beyond happy. You can become so much closer with them even within a short time, because the bond you share becomes stronger and they truly realize that you haven’t forgotten about them.
Being an intern means I’m here for a month and last year that was a perfect amount of time. But being here this year there’s something different – I want to be here longer. I want to meet more local people, create bonds with new families and be happy for longer. It’s often hard to bring the happiness I experience here back to Canada because there aren’t many people to talk about my experiences with. Sure I can talk about my tan or how my month was so amazing, but details don’t get shared often. But if I could be here for longer, maybe just move here, I can retain this happiness for much longer.
The other night while I was leading debriefing I got to listen to everyone talk. I mean I do that all the time, but it’s different here. Here I get to listen to people talk about what they love, what they are passionate about. There is nothing better than the look in someone’s eyes when they tell a story from their day that I know they will remember for a long time. Their eyes light up and their smile is contagious. If I could even just do that for the rest of my life, my time would be well spent.
Sarah – LiveDifferent Hero Holiday Mexico Intern 2012
Nicki’s Blog – Dedication Day (MX Intern 2012)
Dedication day’, two words that no one knows the meaning of until they get the amazing opportunity to experience it for themselves.
To put it shortly, Its a day where you’re able to give a deserving family their brand new home that — in just four days– was built for them. There is much more too it though, it is a day full of pleasure and emotions.
The day begins with everyone wondering what they’re going to say to the family, as you will want to have a small speech prepared that will express your time with them in those short four days. So many emotions running through everyone’s minds as they picture what will happen on that part of the journey; both good and bad. Good because you have done an amazing thing by providing these wonderful people with a new home to grow and love their family. A place where they’re safe. More emotions come from the feeling of accomplishment when you see the joy on their faces after handing over the keys to their new home. As everyone lines up in a semicircle surrounding the family and home, the dedication begins. One by one everyone that built the house speaks about how they interpreted the experience and how they hope that the family will enjoy their new place they call home. I personally get emotional because of how bittersweet it is to see their faces light up because of what we have just done for them. Bitter because I hate to see us go knowing it won’t be at least a year until we meet again.
Doing this for the third time in a span of two years is the most fantastic and heartwarming feeling I have ever felt. Even though I’ve been through it more than once, I still don’t know what to expect until I actually do experience it again. You cannot put the feelings down in writing, you cannot tell someone what you and everyone else has felt on that day no matter how hard you try. It’s unexplainable, you’re speechless. I highly recommend that everyone gets to go through this at least once in their lives, it changes you, forever.
Nicki – LiveDifferent Hero Holiday Intern, Mexico, Summer 2012