Hailee Rogers is just 17 but has already made three trips to Mexico to help build houses for poor farm families.
She started going to Mexico in the summer between Grade 8 and 9 after learning about the Live Different Hero Holidays program from her Williams Lake Secondary School teacher Morley Wilson.
That summer she travelled to Mexico with a group of 50 students from across Canada who divided into teams to build three houses in a two-week period.
She went back to Mexico for a month between grades 9 and 10 as an intern helping to facilitate two, two-week house building groups.
As an intern it was part of her job to co-ordinate the delivery of supplies to the right locations, make sure participants were wearing sunscreen, drinking enough water to stay hydrated in the hot sun, and assist the new volunteers on the construction sites.
By taking extra courses through the GROW program Hailee graduated from WLSS a year early in June, 2011.
“It was a lot of work but worth it,” says Hailee, who decided to fill her gap year between high school and university by participating in Live Different’s nine-month leadership development program.
In addition to taking extra courses to finish high school early, Hailee also worked part time and summers at McDonald’s Restaurant.
She was able to save much of the $8,000 needed to participate in the program on her own. She says her mother and family also helped out by making their graduation presents money for the program.
The fee covers the cost of transportation, food, housing, a translator, instructors as well as pre- and post-event conferences in Hamilton, Ont.
Live Different has projects in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Thailand, but Hailee chose to return to Mexico.
“I just fell in love with the culture and the people I met in Mexico so I just kept going back,” Hailee says.
In the leadership program Hailee is part of a team of 10 youth who have been divided into two teams to spend four months in Mexico and four months giving presentations on the Live Different Hero Holiday programs around Canada.
Between the end of August and mid-December 2011, Hailee and three of her teammates lived in Vicente Correro, a small town near San Quintin, Baja, Mexico, four hours south of the U.S. border.
Farms in the region grow vegetables for export such as tomatoes, strawberries and onions.
In addition to helping to build two houses, Hailee and her teammates participated in various activities to assist the community.
Each week she says they spent a day teaching English in two different primary schools, and also a day helping out at a nursing home for seniors, housekeeping and helping to wash the feet of seniors.
To learn more about the lives of poor workers in Mexico, she says they also spent a week on a farm, part of it building their own picker’s shack and two days bent over the fields picking tomatoes.
“It is a lot more strenuous than it sounds — nine-hour days and really hot.”
They also spent a day digging clams at the ocean, two days working as housekeepers, and two days picking rocks in the fields.
“It was extremely mind numbing,” she says of rock picking.
Part of the leadership program also included researching and compiling reports on aspects of life, work, and problems in different countries around the world with a team leader who has a degree in social work and experience working with various international organizations.
“Every morning we learned about different aspects of poverty,” Hailee says.
She says the interns also have regular briefing sessions while in Mexico so they know what to expect and don’t become depressed by the poverty they are seeing.
For two weeks of their visit Hailee and her team worked with a group of about 17 people to build two houses for farm families. “When you know what you are doing it does pretty fast,” Hailee says.
The houses they build are modest 22-by-20 foot, wood-frame structures built on concrete slabs. They have a kitchen and living area and one or two bedrooms but no indoor plumbing. Water is trucked in and stored in tanks to supply the kitchen needs and outdoor “bucket showers.” An outhouse is built adjacent to each home.
“The people we are building houses for have bought their own land and are paying it off but they can’t afford to build a house,” Hailee says.
She says parents and teens of the families they build the houses for help as much as they can, but most parents and some teens board buses early in the morning to work on the farms and don’t get back home until 8 p.m. in the evening.
Hailee came home to Williams Lake for a couple of weeks over Christmas and worked at McDonalds before heading out on the second half of the program travelling and promoting the Hero Holiday programs in Canada.
She says the presentations include personal testimonies on how the program has helped participants to grow, multi-media presentations on some of the projects and programs such as anti-bullying, and on different ways that individuals can make a difference in the world in their own way.
“It gave me something to be passionate about, a different view on the world,” Hailee says. “It helped me grow up a lot.”
When the program finishes up in June, Hailee says she will come home for the summer to work at McDonald’s, where she has been trained as a team leader and manager. “I like working there. It’s lots of fun and I like the people,” Hailee says.
Hailee has already been accepted at the University of Victoria which she visited on spring break last year and plans to start earning a degree in psychology there in September.
She developed a passion for psychology when she took Psychology 11 in high school.
“I have always been kind of intrigued by how the brain works but when I took the course I really liked it,” Hailee says. “I really want to use my psychology degree, when I get it, to help people in developing countries.”
She says she is most interested in helping child soldiers and children who have been trafficked into slavery and the sex trade to have normal lives.
“I really hate to see children exploited,” Hailee says. “It may be difficult, but I don’t want to choose the easy way.”