Building homes and building hope

By George Ardy, BA'15

Rachel Belanger finds intrinsic value in volunteering. Her studies in Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences definitely keep her busy, but she still has time to give back to her community.

For the past three years Belanger has been involved with various initiatives at Western University. She serves on the executive board of Right to Play Western, assists with freshman orientations, and participates in psychological research studies – to name just a few.

Belanger had her first volunteer experience before even setting foot on Western’s campus.

As a grade 10 student looking for volunteer opportunities during Christmas holidays, Belanger came across an organization known as Live Different, and a program they offered called Builds (formerly Hero Holidays).

Live Different Builds works closely with impoverished communities in Haiti, Mexico, Thailand and the Dominican Republic to help build important structures and empower people. Because she was only 15 at the time, her older cousin accompanied her, and they both fell in love with the experience – so much so that two years later, Belanger participated in a month-long internship with the organization in the summer.

An important value of Live Different Builds is to provide these communities with sustainable and substantial change. “The goal is to give people a chance to provide for themselves and their families,” Belanger elaborated, “so developing a real bond with the community is the number one priority.”

Belanger travelled to the Dominican for both of her trips, which meant during the second visit she had a chance to see the house her group had built during her first visit. “When you see how some people are forced to live it blows your mind. They live in makeshift shacks with little protection from weather or other dangers,” she said. “It gave me a real sense of accomplishment to see the finished product and the smiles on their faces. Having a chance to go back and see it painted and lived-in was a rewarding experience.”

The town that Belanger had a chance to work in was formerly known as Agua Negra – Spanish for Black Water. The town was so polluted that when it rained, the streets would flood with dirty water. Now, after five years of help from Live Different that has led to more than 100 homes being built, the town has changed its name to Nuevo Renecer – Spanish for New Birth. This is a grand gesture of gratitude to the organization, and the efforts of volunteers such as Belanger, for giving their people hope.

Live Different Builds is known for providing volunteers with a myriad of opportunities for personal growth, including debriefings after each day of building encouraging self-reflection. “Debriefs give you a chance to talk about what you saw that day, and what affected you the most. You maybe don’t realize how much this impacts you until you start to openly talk about it,” Belanger explained.

It was such a great opportunity that Belanger said she would recommend it to anyone. “I think there are many reasons people have to not volunteer: time, commitment, money,” she said, “but it’s important for people to make the jump. If you want to make it happen it will happen in the end, and it will be worth it 100 per cent.”