We Day has come to Seattle. The Canadian philanthropic event series—an offshoot of the Free the Children charity--made its American debut Wednesday with a star-studded show at Key Arena. With 15,000 students and teachers in attendance and over half of Washington’s school districts represented, We Day was both a celebration of and a catalyst for youth-led community service—complete with synchronized dancing, celebrity speakers and surprise music performances.
Admission to We Day is earned by supporting one local and one global charitable cause throughout the school year, and with over 5.1 million volunteer hours logged, Washington youth stepped up to the challenge. Issaquah High School raised $10,000 for wells in Africa; Overlake School built a school in Sierra Leone; and Federal Way School District collected a record-setting $18,843 in food donations in one big Halloween event.
“I don’t believe that when you turn 18, you magically develop a social consciousness,” explained Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger. “I think this is just as important as reading writing and arithmetic—something you have to learn. We as a society have to create the structures [for that], we have to make sure that it’s part of school, part of extracurricular events, and something we celebrate, something we honor.”
More than just providing a material incentive to work hard for others in the form of We Day, Free the Children outfits the schools with “We Act” online resources to foster leadership and develop projects relevant to the student body, as well as supplying multiple scripted campaigns. Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, who co-chaired the Seattle event, extolled the organization’s flexible service curriculum.
“The freedom that [Craig’s] continued to present throughout the program, the freedom to choose what you want to support, the freedom to choose where you want to take your time—I think that’s just an indication of what this whole program is all about and it’s very, very special,” he said.
Carroll’s enthusiasm for Free the Children’s method is what brought Kielburger and We Day stateside in the first place.
“How we ended up in Seattle was a phone call,” said Kielburger. “A very passionate, engaged and very persuasive phone call from [Coach Carroll].”
The support of corporate giants like Microsoft and Amway helped make the invitation a reality, and Washington students’ valiant service efforts were met with an equally grandiose, five-hour inspiration and performance fest at Key Arena.
Swathed in a riot of neon colors and applause-activated LED bracelets, the packed stadium was serenaded by Jennifer Hudson, Nelly Furtado and Hedley. MC Hammer led the crowd into a Harlem Shake dance-off. Governor Inslee and Mayor McGinn made quick appearances to congratulate the kids on their efforts. Magic Johnson, Gary Payton and Russell Wilson encouraged the crowd to value their education and make an impact on their community. Motivational speakers tugged at the heartstrings by sharing stories of their hardships, while actor activists Mia Farrow and Martin Sheen cemented that the time to act on one’s passion is always now.
“Free the Children and We Day gives [kids] a safe place to stand up and speak out on issues that affect them and the world and it helps them to challenge—what I think is the most difficult thing to overcome for young people—and that is peer pressure,” said Sheen before his sermon-like speech. “They realize that it’s cool to serve.”
We Day’s cool factor reached decibel-shattering levels when founders Craig and Mark Kielburger wrapped up the event with a surprise performance from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. But while We Day is over for this year, the event was hardly a finale.
“Free the Children is freedom from the idea that you’re too young to do anything,” the Kielburgers announced. “We Day is the promise to keep going, creating the spark of a movement all year long.”
For the Kielburgers, that means making We Day an annual occasion in Washington and other American locations, but for the grinning throngs exiting the arena, it meant coming up with new ways to service communities at home and abroad.
Kamiak High School’s Michael Bervell will do so through “Hugs for Ghana,” an organization that collects school supplies and other aid items for the residents of its namesake.
“The ball’s rolling at our school,” he assured, and by the looks of it, the feeling across over 100 Washington school districts is mutual.