The work of children’s rights activist Craig Kielburger proved to be an inspiration for a group of EDSS students who attended the Me to We conference Monday in Toronto.
Kielburger, the 26-year-old founder of Free the Children, was joined by celebrities such as Robert Kennedy Jr., pop star Justin Bieber, Toronto Argonauts CEO Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemens and former prime minister Paul Martin at the Air Canada Centre.
Free the Children, started in 1995 by a 12-year-old Kielburger, aims to save children from poverty and exploitation through training local students with domestic empowerment programs and leadership training.
On Monday, student adviser David VandenBerg and his EDSS troupe cheered alongside 16,000 student leaders who got pumped up to make changes in their community. Hundreds of thousands more tuned in online. The event, called ‘a rock concert for social change,’ was a field trip for the EDSS students who are part of the “O Ambassadors” team, an initiative started by Free The Children and Oprah’s Angel Network. The students, who after high school want to pursue careers in teaching, global studies, medicine and nursing, are now ready to take what they learned at the conference and bring it back to their own schools.
In the months following the event, students will participate in a year-long youth leadership program, discussing topics such as getting fresh water for areas which are lacking, building schools in poverty stricken places and creating job opportunities for women. It’s an opportunity which has led EDSS student Madeline Charnuski to consider pursuing global studies as her major in university.
“The most inspiring part of the day for me was realizing that Craig [Kielburger] is just an everyday guy. He just read a story in the newspaper one morning when he was 12 and decided to start a small project that is a huge thing now. It is very encouraging because we can do that.”
By participating in Free The Children’s Adopt-a-Village program, students learn about social issues and discover how they can be part of the solution to both local and global challenges. They also raise awareness and funds to build schools and support clean water, health and alternative income projects for communities in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, India, Sierra Leone and China.
O Ambassador Kurtis Rempel said that although the rock-concert aspect of the day was fun, what he will remember most about the event is the shared enthusiasm of all the students in the room, and the passion that the event organizers have for their cause.
“One of the coolest things I noticed was that when both of them were onstage talking about the opportunities we have, they would pump their fists at every point. He (Keilburger) was so into it. He gives his whole life to it. It’s pretty amazing to see how much he puts his whole heart into it.”
Robyn Beckett, one of the younger students on the trip, was glad that conference organizers really emphasized the importance of doing good things rather than simply talking about it.
“People always say they are going to do big things, make big changes, but then they get caught up in the things happening in their life and so they don’t actually act. You really need to push yourself to make any difference. Everyone has a passion, and something they are good at so it is important to really try and bring out the best in the people around you.”
Although the EDSS students are pumped up and ready to work for their community, they realize that others at the school, for a variety of reasons, may not feel as enthusiastic.
Rempel said EDSS is a very “involved” school in many ways, but that there is always room for improvement.
“It is not that they don’t want to get involved – it’s simply that they don’t think it’s the ‘cool’ thing to do, or maybe they just don’t know how. People need to open up and say, ‘I want to do something’ because the opportunity is there.”
Student council co-president Caelen Rank says that her mind has been changed about the impact that the EDSS students might be able to have.
“People always say, ‘I am just one person, I can’t do anything to make change’ … but look at Craig: he is one person, but then he got his class behind him and look where he is today. Don’t think that you can’t do good things because no matter how small something is, it is making a difference.”