Young people in this region are joining youth from across the country in a movement aimed at freeing children across the globe from poverty and exploitation and, at the same time, make them aware of their own power to change the world.
We Day, the largest youth empowerment movement event of its kind came to Kitchener on February 17, featuring an array of high powered speakers and entertainers, including former US vice-president and environmental advocate Al Gore, civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson and Canadian band The Barenaked Ladies. Joining approximately 6,000 youth from across southwestern Ontario at the event were students from Minto Clifford Public School and participants in the Norwell District Secondary School Community Environmental Leadership Program (CELP) and Interact Club.
We Day was founded in 2007 by Craig and Marc Kielburger, the founders of Free the Children, an organization dedicated to eliminating child poverty and freeing children from exploitation. We Day is also designed to free children from the notion they are powerless to affect positive change in the world. Since the event began, We Day participants have logged over two million volunteer hours and raised over $10 million for more than 500 local charities in Canada, organizers state.
At Minto Clifford, 35 children were selected from among over 70 who joined the school’s We School’s in Action program. Teacher/librarian Naomi McCulloch, along with teachers Tim Dickieson and Tammy White-Troyer co-ordinates the We School activities at Minto Clifford. McCulloch said the Kitchener event was an “absolutely phenomenal” experience for the students.
“I felt so extremely humbled as a teacher that I got to work with students who were learning not only that they can be the leaders of tomorrow, but that they can make a difference right now,” she said.
In addition to the celebrity speakers and entertainers, We Day participants heard from young people who had overcome incredible challenges, including a former child soldier and young man who had lost both legs to disease as a child. Their reflections after the event indicate they were clearly moved by the experience.
“It made me realize that my challenges in life were nothing compared to a man who lost his legs because of a disease, or a boy who was forced to shoot his best friends by soldiers in the Congo,” said Grade 7 student Tyler Reiner, who was also deeply affected to learn the extent of child labour in some parts of the world. “Can you imagine being in Grade 4 and being sent to make bricks? I can’t,” he stated.
“We all knew there were cruel and horrible things kids have to live with and grow up with, but we never really thought of how much pain they feel, we just imagined it. But when child soldiers came and told us their stories, it felt like I watched that part of their life,” said Grade 6 student Cayle VanSickle.
Grade 7 student Natasha Weppler said the We Day experience made her realize what a great country she lives and the opportunities it provides. She also realized that youth do have the power to change things.
“All we need is hope for ourselves, trust for one another and the ability to work together. It may not be easy, but in the end it will be worth the struggle.”
Students at Minto Clifford got to work on making change right away. By early March, the school had already raised nearly $1,000 toward their goal of obtaining a clean water system for a village in Haiti. Students purchased candy bags and made donations through “Change for Change” coin drive jars set up at the school. McCulloch notes the Change for Change program will be expanded into the community this spring, with donation jars set up at participating local businesses. The We Day activities, she notes, will be worked into other fundraising programs the school is already operating, in order not to inundate the community. For example, proceeds from a Hat Day planned for the end of March, were to be split between the clean water project and local food banks.
At Minto Clifford, it’s obvious the students are backing up their words with actions and are truly serious about changing the world for the better.
“I can’t wait to start the fundraisers and do my part to make a better world,” said Cayle VanSickle, adding, “We may be just kids, but our voices have the right to be, and can be, heard.”