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Free The Children: How 12 Twelve-Year-Olds Started A Global Movement

27/01/2015 17:17 | Updated 22 May 2015

PAKISTAN CHILD ACTIVIST KILLEDIqbal Masih

By Craig and Marc Kielburger

Who thinks a group of young people can change the world?

On an ordinary morning in April 1995 in our home in Canada, 12-year-old Craig Kielburger sat at the breakfast table, reaching for the newspaper to flip toward the comics when a headline jumped out at him: "Battled child labor, boy, 12, murdered."

Curious, he read the article. It was about Iqbal Masih, a former child labourer turned child rights activist. Sold into slavery at the age of four, this Pakistani boy spent six years chained to a carpet-weaving loom before escaping to become an advocate for the rights of enslaved children. His pleas captured the world's attention. It also prompted a carpet-maker to have him killed.

Iqbal's story shocked Craig. He headed to the library to learn more and made another horrific discovery: in many parts of the world, instead of going to school, children were forced to work in the most awful conditions.

He knew he had to do something.

He decided to share what he'd learned with his class. Nervously Craig stood in front of his peers, telling them about Iqbal and the plight of child labourers. He finished by asking, "Who wants to help?" Eleven hands flew up. That's when we learned that having the courage to try makes even the hardest things possible.

When the 12 twelve-year-olds got together that evening, Free The Children was born. Inspired by Iqbal's life and courage, our mission was to free children overseas from exploitation and poverty. None of us had much experience with social justice work - just a desire to take action. And we were determined to work toward change.

We began by calling some of the adult-run international charities to ask how we could help, but they didn't know how to engage young people. "You can go get your parents' credit card," was one surprising response.

We became determined to prove that young people are capable of making a difference. So we expanded our mission to include freeing kids at home from the discouraging idea that they're too young to take action on issues they care about.

In the beginning, our main goal was to raise awareness about child labour. But many of the people we spoke to would ask whether we'd ever met any child labourers. Craig realised he would have to learn more. In December 1995 he embarked on a seven-week journey across South Asia. There, he saw poverty up close, and came to realise that one way he could make a difference was by sharing the stories of the children he met.

When Craig returned home, life changed forever. Requests for information started to pour in, with young people from across the country wanting to know how they could help.

Eighteen years later, that bunch of 12-year-olds has grown into a movement of more than two million young people who have freed themselves from the discouraging idea that they're too young to make a difference.

It all begins with "We Day"-a global celebration of youth volunteerism and service that comes to the UK for the first time at the Wembley Arena on 7 March, and 12 other cities across Canada and the US.

Each We Day celebration is a crowd of thousands of young people, hearing the encouraging words of leading change-makers as well as extraordinary young speakers.

Thanks to the generous support of sponsors, led by Virgin Atlantic and Barclays, We Day UK is free to attend for students who earn their way by completing one local and one global action. And it's just the beginning.

We Day is tied to "We Act," a year-round service learning programme with an extensive series of resources, ready-made campaigns and direct connection to the Free The Children network of peers in the UK and overseas. We Act equips kids with awareness, hard skills and daily reminders of the importance and impact of their efforts.

Since 2007, We Day and We Act participants have volunteered 9.6 million hours and raised $37 million for 1,000 different local and global causes. Our follow-up studies show that they are also far more likely than their peers to donate to charity, vote in national elections and volunteer for years to come.

Our challenge to young Britons, their parents, their schools and local businesses is to collect coins and then send a cheque to Free The Children UK. £15 in change buys one brick for a school, and 500 bricks build a school. Participating schools and businesses in the UK are linked to sister communities overseas through our holistic "Adopt a Village" programme, which also helps remove barriers to education by providing clean water, health care, and sustainable sources of food and income.

More than just a one-day event, We Day is a movement of young people leading change in their communities and their world. If you or your children aren't able to attend We Day in person, you can join the movement by checking out the great tips and action ideas on Parentdish as well as our resource-filled site at WeDay.com, or take up our Year of Education challenge.

To date, Free The Children has built 650 schools and school rooms in developing communities. This year, young people around the world will help build 200 more.

Not bad for a group of young people.

To learn more about We Day and the We Act programme, visit www.weday.com.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are social entrepreneurs, humanitarians, social activists, renowned speakers and best-selling authors of more than a dozen books, including Free the Children and The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Children Who Care and Contribute , in which they share insights from almost 20 years of empowering youth around the globe. The Kielburgers are also co-founders of We Day, a series of events that inspire and empower young people to be active local and global citizens. We Day UK makes its debut on 7 March at the Wembley Arena.

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