Two years ago, Valerie Pippy joined a team of volunteers building houses in the Dominican Republic. After having just completed her second build, she’s already planning her third for next year.
On the outskirts of Puerto Plata is a community called Nuevo Renacer (“New Rebirth”). If you look it up on a map of the Dominican Republic, you won’t find it. Its old name was Aguas Negras, or “Black Waters”, and the name was not an accident. The riverbanks and beach around the community, which is situated at the mouth of the Rio San Marcos, are strewn with garbage that floats down the murky river from the adjacent resort city.
It was actually worse. Before a recent cleanup, trucks had been using the beach as a dump site.
It was here that Valerie Pippy and nine of her colleagues were thrust into the world of Live Different, a Canadian charity that gives a leg up to Third World communities by building homes.
A financial consultant with T.E. Wealth in Toronto and St. John’s, Pippy had already been sponsoring the son of one of her colleagues to go on builds. Two years ago, she took the plunge herself and became a volunteer builder.
“When we finished our build in 2016, I knew that I had to go back and build more houses and make a difference to more lives,” she says. “My husband and I have always tried to give back to the community we live in as much as we can, but this experience really did make me realize how lucky we are, and we needed to do more,” she adds. “People may say that we should start at home, but our community is a global community and so we should help at home and abroad.”
By the end of 2017, Pippy and her clients had raised enough funds to cover three more builds, two this year and one next year. She brought her husband Robert and son David along, as well as her cousin, his wife and a nephew. Other T.E. associates, including some who’d been on the 2016 trip, brought family as well, making it a true family build.
Pippy didn’t discover Live Different by accident. She’d already been sponsoring Parker Willis’s trips to the Dominican. Parker is the son of T.E.’s Terry Willis. On a bus ride during a family vacation to Panama seven years ago, Parker witnessed two boys fighting over an apple core they had fished out of the garbage.
“That never left my mind,” he says. He googled humanitarian organizations and came across Live Different. His parents came on board and his mother, Alison, is now senior director of international programs. “No matter how much my professors teach me, no matter how many documentaries I watch, no matter how many readings I do, I can never get the experience of shovelling water out of my home every morning when it rains…and choosing which child to educate out of the bunch,” said Parker, who now studies International Development at York University. “You can’t change the world,” he muses. “You can change the world for somebody.”
Live Different was founded in 2005. It grew out of an awareness project called Absolute Leadership Development, which consisted of organizing motivational presentations in schools across Canada. Live Different took that theme further, encouraging students and other charity organizations to raise funds to travel south in person and help build houses, schools and community centres in the Dominican Republic. Over time, their reach extended to Haiti, Mexico and even Thailand.
The success of Live Different is perhaps best illustrated by those who keep returning to help. People like Bill Rawlins of Nanaimo. Rawlins has attended more than 50 builds since he first brought a school group to the Dominican Republic in 2005. He now serves on the board of directors.
Rawlins, who retired as a school administrator in 2006, says he could never look back, particularly after one experience in a Haitian village. There was no sanitation. One woman was frying fish heads over a small fire. The stench was unbearable. “I taught this stuff in high school. I never — even in my wildest imagination — thought that conditions could be that bad. I saw it and smelled it and breathed it for the first time.”
For five straight days in March, volunteers with the Pippy Family build got up, grabbed breakfast, lathered themselves up with bug spray and sunscreen and hopped aboard an open-air bus outside a small resort in Sosua. The ride to La Union is about 15 minutes. Along the mostly two-lane road, motorcycles and scooters weave through traffic like daredevils. A few have whole families precariously perched on them. One passed by with a mother on the back nursing her baby.
Each day, the bus turned off the main road at a grove of trees and meandered along a dirt road. There are no roads through this poorer part of the community; just dirt paths winding between tiny houses on a hillside. From the top of the hill, you can see the path to a dump, where some residents work all day collecting recyclables. Their daily wage: one American dollar.
The build generates work for local contractors; they oversee the construction, plumbing and electrical work. Each house has a basic blueprint: kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a washroom. They’re about 700 square feet in size. The first home was built for a family of eight. Yeseli lives with her husband, Willy, and their daughters. One of the daughters, Merica, has two children of her own; a toddler named Javier and a baby, Jasmine.
Merica is 17 and in Grade 8. “I like drawing, and I like to bake,” she says through a translator, when asked what she wants to do in life. “I’d like to be a baker.” She, her mother Yeseli and younger siblings lived together under one roof, along with her grandfather and uncle. Yeseli’s husband Willy had to cross the border to his native Haiti to get a hernia operation. His relatives there helped pay for it. (Haitians are generally treated as second-class citizens in the Dominican Republic.)
The family was living in a run-down house that leaked like a sieve. One of the two bedrooms was completely uninhabitable. Like many families, they’d have to drape mattresses outside to dry after a heavy rainfall. For many in this town, it’s a struggle to even get food every day to feed everyone. But people look out for each other. The poor help their poorer neighbours.
Julio, who lives nearby, was an active, productive man in his day. He’s the community’s jack-of-all-trades as well as a volunteer firefighter and colourful storyteller. At 79, he has also been plagued in recent years with a hernia. A few days before the Live Different volunteers arrived, he finally got surgery and was staying in a temporary shelter. His old shack didn’t take long to tear down, he says. “It was a really weak house. It only took four people to destroy it.”
During the build, volunteers spend seven hours a day making mezcla (cement mixture) by hand, lugging concrete blocks and twisting rebar together. If someone doesn’t have enough sense to take a water break under the searing sun, staff will gently remind them. Children mingle and play, until they get in the way and an authority figure sends them packing. The contractor is in charge; the local workers usually start the houses, and will finish them if time runs out. Others in the community often lend a hand.
After a day off, everyone returns to dedicate the houses and hand over the keys. Speeches are made, tears flow, and another family is given a renewed sense of security and hope. Julio’s daughter and her baby can move back in with him now that the build is complete. The old wooden structure wasn’t fit for a pregnant woman to live in — anything wooden is eventually decimated by termites. “After God, this is the biggest thing I can have in my life,” an emotional Julio said as he sat on the bed in his new abode. “This is the best thing in the world for me.”
Some of the funds for the build came from an inheritance from Pippy’s British mother, Eileen Jackson. Both homes built on this trip in the community of La Union bear the initials ELJ as a tribute to Pippy’s mom. “My mother supported me with my first build in 2016,” she says. “She paid for new towels and sheets for the family. I shared pictures of our 2016 build with her shortly before her death in June 2016. I told her that I would be going back, and she asked what she could do to support me. All new builds that I am involved with in the future will have towels and sheets for each family.”
Peter Jackson is a journalist in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He is Val Pippy’s cousin.
This article was published in T.E. Wealth’s Strategies newsletter, June 2018 edition. Read the full edition here.