Melissa Cunning is a woman with strength and courage of her conviction. Recently, saultonline caught up with this Algoma University Bachelor of Social Work graduate to learn about a recent humanitarian venture she undertook, through an organization called ‘Live Different’.
“This is something that I had been looking to do for a long time. An opportunity to go to another country and help. I knew that I wanted to do this at least once in my life. Volunteering has always been a big part of my life.”
Based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, ‘Live Different’ was established as a Canadian charity in 2000, and began to operate internationally in 2005. ‘From the very beginning we have been passionate about making a difference in the lives of the people we encounter through our youth empowerment presentations, our humanitarian build programs, and our leadership development opportunities. Over the past 15 years we have had the opportunity to speak to over 1 million students, to build over 350 homes, schools, and other projects, and to mentor over 5,000 students, interns, and volunteers. Live Different Academy students spend their time in Mexico completing a course on international social justice, learning Spanish, and assisting in the local community. The advantage of this ‘school’ is the practical, cross-cultural nature of the experience, resulting in graduates who are changed for good as a result of this intensive and rewarding adventure.’ http://livedifferent.com
Originally from Manitoulin Island, Melissa came to the Sault in 2010 when she attended Algoma U to undertake Bachelor of Social Work studies. Melissa is a lifelong learner, embracing education and volunteering. She has Paralegal Certification, and a Child & Youth Worker Certificate from Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario. “I’m a bit of a geek. I love school. I love learning. And we have so many different ways of being ‘in school’ now-a-days.”
After the death of a dear friend, Melissa “woke up one morning and decided that life was too short.” She applied to Algoma University shortly after that, and shared the news with her parents once she had been accepted to Algoma U.
“Living on campus was fabulous. I did a co-op one summer and stayed right through.” Accessibility issues that did come up were sorted out, and Melissa shared “I love Algoma University. I came out of my shell the minute I walked through those doors.”
Melissa has an identical twin. Michelle & her husband came to visit Melissa at Algoma U when driving through Sault ste. Marie, and her twin sister was astounded at the transformation of her otherwise shy sister, who had flourished into a social butterfly, actively taking in student life and experiences. “Algoma (U)was where I really found myself. Algoma’s where I became Melissa.”
July 2014, Melissa joined the Aktion Club, Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore after Shannon Gowans, Aktion Club President invited Melissa to a meeting of the Club. “For this first time in my life, I feel like I was in the right place at the right time. I have totally embraced Kiwanis as my job at this point.” The Aktion Club of Lakeshore Kiwanis became chartered in June, 2014. Melissa is currently the President-Elect of the Aktion Club of Lakeshore Kiwanis.
‘There are 500 Aktion Clubs on six continents with a total of 12 thousand members. Aktion Club allows adults living with disabilities to participate in community service projects, gain leadership skills and become more involved in community. Aktion Club members give an estimated 92,484 hours of service each year, performing a variety of community services, such as environmental projects, park beautification, food drives, nursing home visitations and assisting Kiwanis clubs with their projects.’ kiwanis.org
“Discovering ‘Live Different’ happened by coincidence while scrolling through (social media site) ‘Twitter’. Research led to information that Live Different is a Canadian based organization doing international projects. There’s not alot of Canadian organizations that are doing this work.” shared Melissa
“All of the other organizations that I had reached out to in the past had said ‘I’m sorry but we can’t use someone like you.’ That’s what I was used to. Rejection. When they hear ‘disability’, it’s like you’re in one package. They think that a person with a disability can’t be a useful part of a team. I got up the nerve to send an email to ‘Live Different’. They got back to me within a few days, and they said. ‘OK. Let’s do an interview over Skype.’ The interview went really well. I told them that I walk with two fore-arm crutches, but I can do this. There’s nothing I can’t accommodate. The canes come off. The hands still work. And then Jen (the interviewer) said, ‘What’s your point?’ It (disability) wasn’t even an issue for them.”
Melissa is quite steady on her feet, walking with relative ease without her fore-arm crutches, using walls to support her balance when necessary.
“My parents are very protective and very loving. At first, they weren’t sure about me going to Vicente Guerrero, Mexico.” Vicente Guerrero is a small town in the Mexican state of Durango with a population around 16,000.
“I respected that they (parents) would be worried, and that they could be concerned about risk associated with this.” At the age of 31, however, Melissa was making decisions with more and more confidence, and pursuing this dream of international volunteering was the trajectory she was on. In December 2014, she signed up. By September 2015, she had embarked on a journey to Mexico.
“We had to pay 3,000 to cover ourselves and then we had to fundraise 3,000 for the organization.” Taken together with the travel expenses, Melissa needed to raise over $7,000 to make her dream of international volunteering a reality.
“With Live Different Academy, my team and I (5 volunteers) spent 3 months volunteering in after- school programmes, seniors homes, women’s shelter (New Beginnings), community centre arts & crafts programmes, car washes, farming and more. We even did a ‘double build’. The need arose while we were down there for a school building (to be built). This became like building two houses.”
Melissa dug deep, and learned how to hammer a nail, use power tools, cook outdoors, and even spent a week in a programme called ‘A week in the life”, which affords participants the opportunity to live simply, without any trappings of comfort. Learning to knit from her grandmother as a child, Melissa found that these skills were transferable when she taught knitting at the community centre and women’s shelter.
“Melissa was developing leadership skills while she was there. The Academy also teaches the participants about volunteer leadership in their home communities” shared Nancy Xilon, Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore member. “Melissa is a very caring and helpful person. We also happen to share a disability, which is that we are both directionally challenged.” shared Nancy humorously.
In fact, it was The Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore, and the Aktion Club that championed Melissa’s fundraising journey. Nancy and Rod Xilon became a major emotional support for Melissa, both before and during the trip to Mexico.
“We were excited about the programme. Rod & I researched this as well. We saw this as an opportunity for Melissa and The Aktion Club; for her to develop as a leader for Kiwanis, and the service projects we take on.” said Nancy Xilon.
“The opportunity was staring at me in the face, and I knew I had to do something about it. I was being accepted for myself. My disability wasn’t preventing me from taking on the challenge”
Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore, as well as the Kiwanis Club of Sault Ste. Marie, The Aktion Club of Lakeshore Kiwanis, hosted various fundraisers and anonymous ‘angel’ donors supported the campaign to raise the funds for costs associated with the trip.
Melissa’s journey with ‘Live Different Academy’ has taught her much, but perhaps the most important lesson being that if we don’t reach for something, we’ll never know for sure if we can grab it and hold on. Melissa’s light shines bright. She is currently a volunteer extraordinaire with Aktion Club, Kiwanis Club of Lakeshore. She is well educated, and is seeking employment. On the subject of The Aktion Club & Lakeshore Kiwanis, Melissa says “No matter what happens in my life, I will never quit my work with them. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure the work gets done.” Potential employers will need to make accommodations for that, and that alone.
Aktion Club of Lakeshore on Facebook is here: https://www.facebook.com