Craig Kielburger is unstoppable. At age 29, he has seen more of the world than most will in a lifetime. He has personally witnessed more poverty and injustice than most care to read about, only to see relief efforts fail the needs of their recipients.
And yet, when presented with a half-full glass, Kielburger will insist on finding a fountain of opportunity and convince you to change the world with it.
The Charity Ecosystem
Struck by a Toronto Star headline, Kielburger began his quest of "shameless idealism" at 12. The saga of a Pakistani boy that unfolded below it would captivate and forever change the life of the Canadian preteen. Iqbal Masih was sold into bonded labor at age four. After six years of being chained to a loom, Masih escaped and publicly spoke out against child slavery, even touring internationally. Then, upon returning to Pakistan, he was assassinated. It was 1995 and like Kielburger, Masih was 12
Kielburger couldn't let such a brave, young voice stay silenced. Calling on his classmates and brother Marc to join him, he took up Masih's cause and Free the Children was born. The charity's uncommon founders gained publicity and eventually broad support, allowing the teenage Kielburger to travel and meet those impoverished and indentured at an unspeakably young age. In its first incarnation, the organization funded rescues and safe houses for children forced to work in horrific conditions. Kielburger soon found the solution wasn't that simple.
"Fairly early on we learned that kicking down the door wasn't enough," he says. Freeing a child from a cruel employer would only land him back in the same grueling poverty that catalyzed his sale. Months later, he would be back in the system, laboring 20 hours a day in windowless room, but with a different taskmaster.
"We had to change out development model to be much more holistic," Kielburger decided. "There's no magic bullet to end poverty, but there's a lot of good silver bullets you can bring together for a sustainable solution. It's all part of a larger ecosystem."
The scope of Free the Children grew with its founders. Rather than slapping a Band-Aid on the symptoms of poverty--like child labor--the organization focused on its preexisting conditions: lack of clean water, health services, schools and jobs. Children are less likely to end up like Iqbal Masih with a nurturing and fiscally sound community at their back.
The ambitious, revamped approach became Adopt a Village. The development plan addresses five markers of sustainability simultaneously, putting in place lasting infrastructure for education, sanitation, medicine, food security and alternative means of income. Now in its 17th year of operation, Free the Children has fostered hundreds of villages in 45 countries. They've built over 650 schools and provided over a million with clean water access. Despite its intense commitment to chosen locations, Free the Children isn't one to linger. With every village, the goal is to leave within five years.
"Our mission is to put ourselves out of business," Kielburger says. "The greatest gift you could give is to help someone so they never need charity again. That's how we measure success."
Craig and Marc Kielburger visit with a Kenyan family in 2007.
Never Too Young
We Day events are held annually in nine Canadian cities. The first American We Day will be in Seattle.
Helping children and developing communities abroad has always been only half the battle for Kielburger.
"Internationally, it was about freeing kids from poverty," he says. "At home it was freeing kids from the idea that they're too young to make a difference."
When Free the Children was just an idea and not an international charity powerhouse, "too young" was a label Kielburger had to buck often. Impassioned by Masih's death and ready to take action, his 12-year-old self had little idea of where to begin. When the founders called an established charity and offered their help, the operator told them to find their parents' credit cards.
But the kids refused to be held powerless. With every cafeteria speech on children's rights and every school district penny drive, Free the Children earned respect for the silly notion of youth activism.
"When we started, two of the most uncool things in the world were trying to make a difference and glee clubs," Kielburger jokes.
Now that both Glee and changing the world is in vogue and the third world struggles can be shared instantaneously on social media, Kielburger still sees plenty of work to be done.
Today's youth have the capacity for extraordinary awareness, he agreed. "But what do you with that information?"
According to Kielburger, going to Free the Children's website is a really good start. In addition to its international work, the organization offers a wide array of programming and resources for folks at home. Online, teens can peruse a menu of awareness and fundraising campaigns, picking and choosing from a slew of domestic and foreign issues. Addressing homelessness, for example, can take the form of a One Night Out event. Those interested can download fact sheets, tips on organizing their peers and contact information for a youth coordinator who'll coach them through the process.
"We want to make it easy," Kielburger says. "We were 12 and people didn't take us seriously so everything we built is what we wished we had when we were 12."
While providing an activism roadmap was an admirable step, but the Kielburgers recognized that an online database couldn't sustain a community. We Day could. Now in its sixth year, the multi-city event unites thousands of children in Canada for one day of celebration, education and solidarity. The Free the Children offshoot is completely free to attendees and festivities include performances by the likes of Justin Bieber and speeches by the Dalai Lama. The catch? There are no tickets. Kids have to earn their way into We Day by taking action on one domestic and one international issue--anything from collecting canned food to volunteering overseas.
"'I'm only one person. What difference will I make?' I heard that phrase so often," Kielburger says. "We created We Day to try to answer that question."
More than a tangible reward for service, We Day is an unprecedented bonding experience for involved youth. Vowing to take on the world's suffering is considerably less daunting when 15 to 20 thousand likeminded, passionate individuals cheer at your side.
We Day guests include teen celebrities, Nobel Prize laureates and hometown heroes. The Dalai Lama has attended multiple We Day events in the past.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll tells students about We Day at a Federal Way High School assembly.
Now, Kielburger is bringing the We Day phenomenon to America. Seattle's Key Arena will be first to welcome it. Free the Children chose the Evergreen State for its inaugural US event largely thanks to the lobbying of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll (a huge fan of Free the Children) and the area's acumen for philanthropy. Washington's school districts have embraced the project with enthusiasm. Scheduled for March 27 of next year, We Day has already partnered with Federal Way, Highline, Bainbridge, Renton, Tukwilla and Grandview. With Free the Children's mentorship, the students of these districts are now tasked with bettering communities at home and abroad to earn their way in.
Kielburger kicked off We Day fever with an assembly at Federal Way High School. Attended by Coach Carroll, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and Microsoft's Brad Smith, the star-studded event has galvanized the entire school district to impressive feats of volunteerism.
"There's a school-wide buzz on making a difference. The energy certainly has lingered," says FWHS teacher and appointed We Day coordinator Christine Ha. Weeks later, students still knock on her door, brimming with project ideas and questions about involvement with Free the Children.
"It's really inspiring as a teacher to hear your students talk that way," she says.
Federal Way's senior student body president Caleb Dawson is getting similarly swarmed with good intentions. All the excited texts and Facebook messages translated to palpable community benefit with Dawson's organizing. Choosing "We Scare Hunger" for the school's domestic Free the Children campaign, the senior rallied 350 students from multiple districts to collect food for the homeless on Halloween night. After everyone's contribution was added up, the food haul reached 10,000 pounds. The statistic is even more impressive when Dawson compares the Kielburger-inspired attendance with that of a similar Halloween food drive last year--only 26 students had shown up in 2011.
Deciding on the district's international action will take even more organizing. The schools have assembled a student-run executive board to brainstorm an appropriate campaign. Ambassadors from the district's elementary, middle and high schools will help make the decision. But whether Federal Way chooses to fund a school in Ecuador or purify water in Ghana, the deliberations alone are bringing about an unprecedented camaraderie in the area's academic community.
"It's definitely bringing our schools in our district together," Ha says. "That is huge for us. Rather than a rivalry between schools, having this connection of, "We want to give back, how do we give back together?"--having those conversations is the most brilliant thing about it."
"It's also really exciting for the upperclassmen," says Dawson, who's balancing his time between We Day obligations and college applications. "[We're] able to work with our feeder schools and start creating a legacy within our school district. Students that come after us [will] also have a vision and effectively lead."
With so much goodwill in the works after one assembly, it's hard to fault Kielburger his unbridled optimism. In the meantime, the Free the Children founder is teasing his Washington fans with We Day's entertainment roster. So far he's confirmed Nobel Prize Winner Mikhail Gorbachev's attendance. The anticipation is killer, but Dawson--who attended a We Day in Vancouver--assures that it's worth the wait.
"It's probably the coolest thing youth can go to," the senior says. "Any student that ends up there is going to be wired on excitement and enthusiasm and passion to make a difference."
Just as Kielburger intended.
Craig Kielburger kicks off plans for the first ever American We Day event with at the Federal Way school district.