It started as a preteen’s campaign to free child slaves, but now it’s one of Canada’s most recognizable charities. Free the Children – with help from its for-profit sister enterprise, Me to We – has spent close to 20 years honing its model of support for the developing world, now focusing on freeing children from the cycle of poverty.
Craig Kielburger, co-founder of both organizations, says it took a lot of learning from past mistakes to reach the model they have today. “I think that what we do very well is always assess and reassess the viability of a model,” he says in an interview.
Free the Children approaches communities with a five-pronged strategy to remove barriers to accessing education, particularly for girls. “The first is always a school,” Mr. Kielburger says. Nearly 700 schools and school rooms later, he says, “There’s something universal that brings communities around educating their children.”
From there, they work with communities to bring in clean water and sanitation, food security and alternative income programs, and health care accessibility.
The goal is to exit a community within five years, he says, after the initiatives they bring in become self-sustaining.
In the 16 Maasai and Kipsigis communities they’ve worked with in Kenya’s Narok South district, they’ve brought in numerous programs to encourage healthier living.
There are boreholes drilled that bring water through underground pipes to schools, each with a handful of kiosks nearby to make clean water both accessible and close to home. This frees up time for girls, who would often have to travel a kilometre or more to the Mara River to get clean water, keeping them out of school. (It also means locals don’t drink water downstream from people bathing or relieving themselves.)
The Baraka Health Clinic, one of two in the area, brings both curative and preventative care to the community, working with everyone from students to expecting mothers to teach best health practices – some as simple as hand-washing – to ensure families are healthy and can send their children to school. It continues to expand, with a three-month-old maternity wing that’s already delivered 50-plus babies; it even has an X-ray facility on the way.
“Good health is a key factor to a good education,” says community nurse Samuel Gachau. “When we give children a healthy environment, they are able to learn the best possible.”
Residents are also encouraged to plant their own “kitchen gardens” to grow food for their families, and larger gardens are installed at schools for lunch food. And many adults now work for extra sources of income, including jewellery-making, beading and additional farming. This not only makes it easier for parents to raise money for their children’s education, but helps empower women in the community.
“In our community, all cows were owned by men,” says local leader Leah Lemeloi, who leads a group of women who sell beaded jewellery through Me to We, and whose community values cattle as a symbol of wealth and importance. “But now we have cows because we have money to buy them.”
Free the Children and Me to We have been able to fund this work partially through overseas trips to build schools, which are often marketed to offer a sense of self-fulfillment for the travellers. David Jefferess, a critical studies professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus and former secondary-school teacher in Malawi, has criticized this aspect of the organizations.
“The focus of their work is not so much how other people can live better lives, but how we can feel good,” he says.
But Mr. Kielburger says getting overseas and seeing villages first-hand ingrains the importance of long-term commitment to the cause.
“If the purpose of going overseas is purely to help others, then it makes sense to just send a cheque,” he says. But getting there in person cements the reality of the situation, “to realize that Africa isn’t just a Sunday morning commercial.”