Rozina accepts and returns a loving and grateful hug from one of the smaller recipients of a home during the 2024 Live Different experience this past March. /SUBMITTED

By Andrea Arnold

In mid-March, a group of 19 Robson Valley residents joined forces with nine others to build two homes through the Live Different organization, for single moms and their families in Vicente Guerrero, Mexico during spring break.

Derrick Shaw, principal of Valemount Secondary School, has been participating and heading up these trips since 2014, and he would like to include appreciation and gratitude for another very important group that was involved in this, and all the other trips.

“The community of McBride has been more supportive than I could have ever imagined,” he said. “The expense of just getting there has more than doubled in the ten years I’ve been involved. I would say about 98 per cent of the kids would not be able to go if it wasn’t for donations.”

Shaw said that this year, through the recycling bottle trailer located at the McBride transfer station, the Dunster Music Festival, concessions and private donations, they raised $28,000 in 18 months, to make this trip happen.

Over the years, Shaw has travelled with an assortment of ages, but he really likes to see the younger generation participate. This year, 15 of the participants in the group were students, 11 of whom are from the Robson Valley.

“I believe everyone who participates has a take away from the trip,” he said. “They all will see the world through a different lens. They can help shape the world, and they can make connections, no matter what their stage in life.”

Building relationships

Only two of the students from the valley had volunteered on this trip in the past. The rest experienced it all for the first time, and Shaw was so proud of them.

“They killed it,” he said. “They (physically) worked hard, and it took a day or two for them to see what we were doing, but they built relationships with the community members. On dedication day, when we handed over the keys, there were lots of tears.”

One special connection that Shaw witnessed over this trip was that of team member Kirby and one of the boys, Diego, that would be moving into the pink house that was being built.

“Diego was unable to say Kirby, so he started calling him Kevin,” said Shaw. “By the end of the build, the relationship was so strong, that Diego had switched to calling him Papa Kevin. That was a hard goodbye.”

While the connections and positive experiences that participants have while on the trip can be life changing, Shaw cautions that some of what the volunteers are exposed to can trigger some negative emotions. They work in an area that is extremely impoverished, and some of the living circumstances can be shocking.

“We hold debriefing sessions every night,” said Shaw. “We discuss many things, including resilience and empathy. The people we build for are resilient like no one else, and they are so grateful.”

Exploring the neighbourhood

They were building near the dump this year. The dump is not an area that they usually venture into during builds as the level of poverty among the residents may be too shocking. A few years ago, Shaw asked if he could help take out the garbage. He can’t be sure, but he figures there were at least 20 people living in the dump. They came out and for just a few pesos, unloaded the truck for them. He saw an elderly couple sorting through bags looking for aluminum to sell. 

“I even met a Canadian who had chosen to live there,” said Shaw in disbelief. “The dump is on fire 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The smoke changes colour, but there is always a billowing cloud coming from the area.”This year, there was a makeshift shelter near where one of the builds was taking place. There was at least one small child and her mother living in it. During construction, the mother approached and asked how she could get on the list for a home. Live Different member Angelina Garcia will be following up with her to complete the screening process. 

Trip highlights

One of the highlights each year for Shaw is the opportunity to visit families that have been recipients of homes that his teams have built in the past. He feels lucky to be able to see how a family’s life and whole world has been changed because of their new home. 

In 2020, just one week before the team was set to depart for Mexico, they received word that they would not be allowed to make the trip. Covid had shut down all travel. They had been fundraising, so the money that would have gone towards building supplies was sent to the Live Different crew that is in place in Mexico. The items were purchased, and through the giving of the Robson Valley, two families were provided with new homes.

Shaw had the opportunity to meet with one of these families, and although the Robson Valley team was not present during the actual build, he said that the family still views “us” as the people who made it possible.

This year, 10 members who had worked on a home in 2022 had the opportunity to return and visit with the family. Shaw reports that they have vegetables growing and more vegetation around the home. He pulled out his phone and showed the family an image of the article that was run in the Rocky Mountain Goat following their return.  

“They pulled their phones out and started taking pictures of the picture of their picture in the newspaper,” said Shaw. “They were giggling the whole time.”

There has only been one home ” the one he helped build on his first trip in 2014 ” that does not still have a family thriving in it.

“We visited in 2016, and it wasn’t being very well kept,” said Shaw. “It was starting to look run down. The next year, it was boarded up and it still is. No one lives there, and no one seems to know what happened to the family.”

Live Different has since started to provide new residents with training to maintain their homes to ensure the builds last a long time.

When construction is complete, the homes are furnished with beds, linen and other items. The pantry is stocked with more food than these families can imagine. Some of them work for $21 a day in the fields for Drisscol, picking the very berries that are in the grocery stores in McBride.

Karmen, the mother of the family receiving the blue house, took time to thank each of the people working on her home. She acknowledged what each person did in order to be there, how much effort went into fundraising and expressed her deepest thanks. 

“She understood how many burgers we had flipped and how many bottles we had collected,” said Shaw.

Karmen will be living in the 20×22 foot, two bedroom space with eight other family members.

The volunteer experience

Shaw says that the team eats really well while they are there. In fact, one mom didn’t believe her child had done any work when he arrived back home because he didn’t look like he’d been doing physical labour. At the base where the teams are housed, a kitchen crew provides them with all their meals. The kitchen team is a family unit. It was started by Theresa who passed away following a battle with Covid, and her family has stepped up to continue her legacy.

On the final night, the whole team, along with the kitchen crew sit down for dinner at a restaurant as a treat for a job well done. 

Over the course of their 10-day trip, the team works hard but they are also treated to a day of exploring. Some years, they travel 45 minutes on a road into the mountains that Shaw described as a road that makes local forestry roads look like a dream. The trip takes them to a place appropriately named Oasis. There are two pools of water for swimming, and the area is green and lush with palm trees and growth.

This year, they did not make that trip. Instead they were offered, for the first time, the opportunity to go kayaking in the ocean. Then some of the group made the climb to the top of an inactive volcano and the day wrapped up with beach time and a bonfire. 

Learning experiences

This year, Shaw experienced a few firsts that resulted in a deeper understanding and realizations, and he was able to help some of the students understand more about the poverty in the area.

“There is a corner store not too far from the base that the kids can walk to in the evening,” said Shaw. “It is like the Dunster Store, with a little bit of everything. The kids found small Ziploc bags containing only a few cups of dog food and they were confused.”

Shaw explained to them that the people in the area could not have the cash to buy a big bag of dog food, so it was portioned out into the smaller bags so that they could afford to feed their pets. 

“That hit home hard for some of them,” he said. 

Shaw had known about the dog food, but he was surprised to find that the same applies for medication.

He had hurt his back and went to the store to get some pain killers. When he returned to the base and opened the package, he was surprised to see that one pill had been neatly cut out of the packaging. Garcia explained to him that it is common practice for locals to only buy one or two pills because they do not have the money to pay for a bottle or box full.

“She took me to get something stronger, and when the pharmacists opened the box there were only four pills left in it,” he said. “She asked how many I wanted. I said, I guess four.” 

Some of the team members developed a rash this trip as well. As a precaution, they received medical attention and were given a prescription for a cream. When Shaw went to get the prescriptions filled, he was astonished to learn that the pharmacist does not keep the prescription. In fact, he had to go to three different locations to get everything he needed, and he still had the papers in the end.

This experience also illustrated to him the ease in which drugs can hit the street in Mexico. The medication for the rash cost the equivalent of $2.50 Canadian, and there was nothing stopping him from going to more locations and buying more using the same prescription.

“This was an ah ha moment for me like the dog food was for the kids,” he said. “I appreciated the exposure to a completely different world.”

It has only rained a few times during the building in the 10 years he’s been going. This year it rained twice, a very rare occurrence. He said that everything stops when it rains. The ground becomes so slippery that even a walk becomes a slip slide fiasco. Then, when the rain stops, the ground dries up as fast as it gets slippery.

Live Different visits Robson Valley

The Live Different road crew travels around and presents to groups about what the organization does. The crew is arriving at the Shaw home over the weekend and will be staying with them until after their presentation to students in McBride on Monday.

Shaw has known one of the members of this crew, Angela Nolh, since she was only nine years old. Her mom is Angelina Garcia, the permanent Live Different team member in Mexico who screens the applications that come in for new homes. She also provides her services as a nurse. She also travels to provide medical services.

Shaw is excited to be able to show Nolh a little slice of the valley and has plans to take her mountain biking, to the Ancient Forest and possibly Kinney Lake.

Closing thoughts

Shaw loves doing the trips, but admits that fundraising and organizing is a lot of work, and that he is getting tired. However, he also admits that getting to the location this year and seeing the relationships building and seeing the participants learn how they can make a difference for others was, as it is every year, the payoff.

He loves to talk about his experiences and invites anyone who has questions to give him a call. But, he also suggests that others who have been on the trips are also approached. He has seen countless volunteers develop a new outlook following their return.  

“Everyone has a different level of take away,” he said. “It might not be instant, but something from the trip will stick, and change the way each individual sees the world, or lives.”

He wants the whole Robson Valley to know that for each family that receives a house, their whole world changes, and so we as a community, are changing the world.