Retired teacher makes a difference for Mexican children

Joyce Wright is building a future for childrenJoyce Wright is building a future for children

SALINAS, ECUADOR – Growing up as a middle child in Calgary with three sisters, two brothers and community-involved parents, sharing and caring became part of Joyce Wright’s identity.

Still, the recently retired mother of two never expected to end up building actual structures for others – with her own hands.

Wright, now 62, her sister Louise, and 14 other volunteers contributed cash and their own labour two-and-a-half years ago to add two rooms to a school for impoverished berry pickers in Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, through a program run by Live Different, based in Hamilton, Ont.

And as we chatted in a café here, where she was on vacation, Wright was preparing to take part in a second “build” in the same area, along with her sister and a Live Different group.

“We help people who want to help themselves,” Wright said.

Similar to the better-known Habitat for Humanity, Live Different is a non-denominational and apolitical recognized charity that partners with grass-roots organizations in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and soon Thailand, to build schools, houses, and other facilities.

The Canadian volunteers pay their own way, raise funds to finance their trips and purchase of materials, and do the actual work, with the cooperation and assistance of local activists. And you don’t have to be a Ms. Fix-It to take part, she noted: you will be coached and supervised.

Wright first heard about the group from her sister Louise, a retired school teacher who lives in Parksville on Vancouver Island, and whose husband is a Rotary Club member.

“She and her husband and other Rotarians built a house for a family in Vincente Guerrero, an agriculture area in Mexico’s San Quintín Valley of Baja, Mexico, 280 kilometers south of Tijuana.

“That’s where the people who pick the raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries that we eat in the
winter live.

“Driscoll and BerryWorld own all the land. (The bitter and long-standing labour dispute involving attempts to organize farmworkers who say they are being exploited by Sakuma Bros., that supplies Driscoll, which distributes the fruit, appears not to be connected with operations in the Baja peninsula.)

“About two and a half years ago, my sister and members of The Rotary Club built a house for a berry picker. The only requirement is that the person has to have bought the land and started making payments – they buy the land quite reasonably, but can never afford to buy it outright.”

“Because they’re constantly making payments, it takes a huge chunk out of their meagre wages. They live in houses made of flotsam off the beach – tin, plastic, whatever they can find.

“The Canadian group built the house and my sister thought it was a great experience. Then she emailed all of us and said she thought another build would be a great sisters’ activity. We always get together every year, so why not a sisters’ week instead of just a weekend?

“I said, ‘I’m in!”

She had never built a house, or done any fancy carpentry, but the whole family worked in their father’s garage when they were young.

“We all know our way around tools, we’re not afraid of tools, and I was willing to learn.

“I saw this a good chance to give back to somebody in another country, and for the four of us to spend time together. Caring for others was part of the family’s nurturing environment, she explained.

Her father, who worked for 30 years as a cabinet maker for T. Eaton Co, “would give away the shirt off his back if he thought someone needed it more.”  And her mother cared for neighbourhood children so their mothers could go to work outside the home.

The Wright children carried those values in their adult lives. “Whenever we get together we always do projects. One year we made baby clothes for the neo-natal ward at Nanaimo Hospital, from my sister Louise’s clothing scraps.”

For that first project, two years ago, the sisters were asked to build a classroom addition to the elementary school in Vincente Guerrero, and they joined 15 other volunteers, most of them Rotary Club members or spouses to do the actual work. They varied in age from 55 to 80, paid their own airfare, hotel in San Diego, room and board, and building supplies.

“There was one classroom, 30 by 20 feet, for 50 three, four, and five-year-olds, and they needed another classroom. The three-year-olds go to school in the morning so the moms can go out and pick berries in the morning.” A concrete platform was poured and ready when the Canadians got there, and they erected a classroom and adjoining teacher’s room.

The project hired a local person, Saul Machado, to act as construction foreman. Canadians Dawn and Andrew Bernardi, who work for Live Different in Mexico, acted as coordinators for this and other projects.

The Mexican staff vet the families that have applied for housing to ensure that everything is above board.

“We worked every day, for eight or nine days, from 9 am to about 4 pm. We used high-pressure nail guns to drive nails into the concrete. We learned to cut and measure drywall, and did a lot of painting.

“We were the gofers. They took 16 people, many of whom didn’t know each other, and turned them into a team – best team building exercise on the face of the earth.”

“When the teachers came by and saw the inside of that classroom, and tears were running down their faces – that was the most heartwarming experience of my life.”

The return on investment was so deep that Wright and her sister Louise decided to do it again. They were to fly to San Diego last month with a Rotary Club group, which this year is contributing funds. Last year it cost each participant about $2,400 or $2,500 each, but this year the per person cost was expected to increase, because of a more ambitious project – building three classrooms as part of a seniors’ community centre in the Las Aves area of the Baja peninsula.

Another group had started working on it, and the base per person cost this year was $1,550, which qualifies as a charitable donation. More than half of that amount came from contributions from friends and supporters.

“I’ve written cheques, but it’s not the same as watching the look on their faces, and the joy of the children when they help you,” Wright said. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to realize that some of these old adages really are true, like “give a man a fish you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

“They want for their children everything we want, but they don’t have the means to get it. Some of these people have grade-one education, they want their children to have a better life and by giving these children an education we are giving them that opportunity.”

For more information, or to contribute or participate, go to

“Change the world — and yourself in the process.”

An Ontario couple, Vaden and Christal Earle, founded Live Different, formerly ABSOLUTE, as an empowerment vehicle, with speeches and videos part of hour-long presentations, to encourage those in the 18-24 demographic to “live a life of purpose based on positive values.”

Incorporated as a federally recognized charity in 2000, and since 2004 based in Hamilton, Ont., the focus shifted with the setting up of hands-on building programs in which older Canadians also participate, to erect structures in impoverished communities.

In the past 12 years, according to spokesperson Ashley Smart in Hamilton, some 5,000 Canadian volunteers have helped finance and erect with their own muscle 500 “builds” – mainly homes, about a dozen schools and a dozen clinics, in Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

Most of the overseas projects are organized by Live Different. It also coordinated so-called private builds, where established groups, whose members are older, such as the Rotary Club in Parksville, Vancouver Island, recruit volunteers, raise the funds, and participate in carrying out the actual work.

As its website says: “Volunteering on a Live Different Build is about changing the world and allowing yourself to be changed in the process…Create change by building hope that will transform a community.”

“Don’t know a thing about construction? We’ll teach you what you need to know! … You will come to realize that life is about people, not stuff.”

There are no specific projects out of Quebec, but Smart says Quebecers have participated in builds and encourages anyone who is interested to contact the group.

Call 1-866-432-4464 or visit

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