Just after Christmas, Rickee-Lee Webster visited the Dominican Republic for a 'Hero Holiday'. Along with fellow Weyburn residents and her friends, Jessie-Lynn Rubin, Andrew Rubin and Nathan Rubin, Webster took the 10-day humanitarian journey through an organization called Live Different.
"What Live Different does is team up with the leaders in the community who are already attempting to make a change," said Webster. The value of 'helping those who help themselves' goes both ways. To get to the Dominican, they each had to come up with the funds.
"We were able to fundraise for $1,800 each, as a portion went to the house materials," she said, noting that those dollars were tax-deductible to the donator. "Then you just have to pay for your flight."
The first day of the trip, they were taken to a few little towns where some work has already been done.
The group visited with a missionary who had been teaching under a tarp with seven or ten students. He had originally been asked to go there to preach, but when he discovered that everyone in the village was illiterate, he decided to start a school instead of a church. Live Different helped him to build a school so that every man, woman and child could learn to read. They had 125 students before too long and, just this past year they had their first person graduate from this school, qualifying them to move on to the next level in the city.
The Live Different leader in each community helps to decide who gets a house built for them during the Hero Holiday. This winter holiday's project involved rebuilding a home for a family in Agua Negra.
When they first arrived in the town, Webster was very surprised by how uninhibited the children were toward the Canadian visitors. Not only were the kids not shy, Webster found herself literally covered in toddlers before too long. Since Live Different does not allow its volunteers to give anything out, the kids' attention was not because of gifts.
"They just want to be touched and hugged and picked up. It was extremely emotional," she said, noting that, although the children suffered poor hygiene from extreme poverty, they were absolutely beautiful - because they were, after all, just little children.
In that moment, Webster had an overwhelming realization that immediately brought her to tears.
"I am a crier," she explained, "but it was the first time in my life that I was embarrassed to be crying, because I have nothing to be sad about and these kids do, and yet they are full of wonder and smiles."
Live Different has been working in Agua Negra for approximately five years.
"You can see the difference they have made," she said. "It is still a huge shock, but compared to the Haitian village, these people are doing fairly well."
In order to get the entire home built in only one week, a local contractor crew is also hired to run the project, for which the volunteers are the helpers.
"You mix concrete by hand," she said. "We probably did ten to fourteen batches a day."
Webster noted that the wheelbarrows are not in good shape and that assembly lines were often formed.
She also observed that the kids in the village really wanted to help.
"The kids were unreal," she said. "You pull out a wheelbarrow and some shovels and the kids come running to help. Little kids - two to nine, fourteen and fifteen year olds! Some of the pails of rock weighed more than the children themselves! But they were there helping pass buckets, or fill them."
Webster was impressed by the gratitude that was expressed by the community members toward the Canadian workers. One family in particular, commended her group, unsolicited - even though their house was not being redone. The young husband told her, "You are making our community a better place."
Although that particular man did speak English, most Dominicans and Haitians do not. In fact, each 15-person Live Different team has about four translators, because forming connections with the people is a huge part of the Live Different.
Music is, however, a universal language.
After each work day, the children walked the workers back to their bus. On one of those days, a ten-year-old boy, who had been showing off his singing skills earlier while they had worked, began 'beat-boxing' (making drum sounds with his mouth). So, Webster started clapping along to the rhythm. Then, another other little boy picked up a can and a stick from the garbage-filled beach and he started playing along as well. This was a profound experience.
"We didn't speak the same language, but it doesn't matter, connection is not always through words," noted Webster.
A number of Haitian people are stateless human beings with no actual paperwork declaring nationality. Many of those individuals make their living - about three dollars per day - picking through garbage for refundable recycling at the dump.
On the 'dump day', Webster was teamed up with a lady who was about 55 years old.
She had been there for 16 years, had left Haiti to have a better life, and she had not yet found it.
"Sitting with Rosemund," Webster described, "looking out over the dump, flies fighting each other, under the scorching sun, thinking this would be my job, everyday nine hours a day, six days a week. I felt surprised they still find hope."
Rosemund's six-year-old grandson works in the dump with her, as he has done his entire life.
The purpose of dump day was to help increase each person's income for that day.
Webster also assisted with a food program that provided one meal per week to each child as well as to elderly people.
"So, for sure each of those kids is getting fed breakfast once a week, through the community centre," said Webster. There is, however, no guarantee that each child is getting fed more than that one single meal.
"It was a huge, eye-opening, humbling, perspective-changing experience for me," said Webster. "I am overwhelmingly grateful for all the people that donated, for me to go. It has changed the human being that I am, and the way I will live my life going forward."
Describing the trip as 'a major reality check', Webster hopes that more people from our privileged society will go on a Hero Holiday. What we in Canada take for granted, such as clean running water and other basic provisions from our government, is not even understood, let alone attained, by most third world people.
"It is the most amazing experience I have ever had," she explained, "and I hope it inspires others to try the experience it for themselves. I learned more about the world and about the strength of human beings and about how I want to live. The experience was epic."
Since her return to Canada, some people have asked Webster if she thinks she has made a difference.
"I do not know if I made a difference," she said. "I went there and I helped build a house and I helped distribute food and I made some people smile here and there and gave hugs and showed I cared. I don't know if that will change someone's life. But let me tell you who's life got changed," (Pointing to herself), "This person right here."
Webster had been concerned that she was losing her humanity.
"Now, every single day, if I do one little thing to help someone, maybe it will inspire someone to do the same, or make someone's life a little bit easier, but for sure it will make a difference in my life. These are the things that make our soul smile, giving, attention and love. It doesn't matter where you live."
Webster plans to return to the Dominican Republic, noting that Live Different will do a trip with ten or more people who want to go as a group. For more information visit livedifferent.com.