‘I had no excuse any more not to do anything,” recalls Alaine Spiwak about her first We Day in 2010 when she was 16.
“After being at We Day, I couldn’t go home and not do anything.”
If it’s possible to sum up the impact of We Day, it’s the transformation of this young woman. She changed from social butterfly to social activist.
We Day, which began in 2007 with 7,000 children attending, is now an annual autumn event, bringing 100,000 young people together in eight cities across Canada.
It evolved from the youth-driven charity, Free the Children, the brainchild of activists Craig and Marc Kielburger. With inspirational speakers, international leaders and topnotch entertainers, We Day celebrates the power of young people to change the world.
“We Day is unlike any other event in the world,” says James Lombardi, Free the Children’s director of We Day. “It literally changes lives all over the world.”
We Day is both the kickoff and the culmination of hundreds of fundraising projects under the auspices of Free the Children. They support schools, clinics, health and clean water initiatives and economic opportunities locally and internationally in countries such as Kenya, Ecuador and India.
But you can’t buy a ticket to We Day.
And it’s a hot ticket, with speakers and entertainers including, this year, Jennifer Hudson, Nelly Furtado, Hedley, Shawn Desman, Martin Sheen, Justin Trudeau and Al Gore.
You have to earn your ticket to We Day.
Educators and leaders of youth organizations, schools and community groups are given tickets to distribute to young people who have made a contribution to fundraising and social activism through clubs at schools or in the community, including groups affiliated directly with Free the Children called (Mob)ilizers.
This year, for the first time, Free the Children is awarding a number of individual tickets to young people who have taken action to help others.
Speaking for the two dozen or so staff members of Free the Children who began working on the concept in 2006, including the Kielburger brothers, Russ McLeod says they undertook the first We Day in 2007 because “when we looked at young people, caring was not cool at the time. Our goal was to make caring cool.”
“We had done a lot of speaking tours, and a ton of work with young people, and heard they often felt alone, and had trouble connecting friends with the issues they were passionate about.
“So we realized that if we brought youth together and they realized they were not alone in caring, it would drive the momentum.”
It worked beyond anything they could have imagined.
“We were surprised,” Mr. McLeod recalls. “I don't think anybody understood what the impact was going to be from putting all those kids together in the same room.
The energy was like stumbling across gold. Every speaker got a standing ovation. After every performer, the audience was on their feet waving their cellphones in the air, just like we did as kids holding up our lighters.”
This year, excitement is mounting for 20,000 young people who will attend We Day in Toronto and an additional 80,000 at We Day events in other cities.
“What you feel on We Day is young people's belief that they can make a difference,” says Mr. McLeod, who is now chief operations director of Me to We, an offshoot and sister organization of Free the Children that runs international volunteer trips abroad.
“We Day aims to shift pop culture,” he says.
“It's no longer about music videos, money and fashion. It's about issues and caring. We've fundamentally shifted the culture of the Canadian education system. The mass of students has shifted from apathetic to caring.”
Ms. Spiwak is a poster child for that shift.
In June, less than two years after attending her first We Day, after cashing in $3,800 in beer bottles, Ms. Spiwak embarked on a Me to We trip to Ecuador to visit the school her (Mob)ilizer group had built.
“I fundraised every penny for the trip,” she says proudly. “I got to go and put my hand on the actual school we built.”
Ms. Spiwak had joined the Social Justice Club at Sherwood Secondary School in Hamilton and the first meeting of the club just happened to be We Day.
It was a watershed day, she says, a day of transformation that delineated a “before” and “after” in her life.
“Before, I was very social, always going out with friends,” she explains. “Afterward, I felt morally obligated to be involved, to put more of myself into everything.”
Ms. Spiwak became involved with (Mob)ilizers in Hamilton, raising funds through coin drives and projects such as We Are Silent, We Scare Hunger and a five-kilometre run. A dinner/dance and silent auction sent $20,000 to a health clinic in Kenya.
Now in her first year of university in Ottawa, Ms. Spiwak continues to work with Free the Children and can't wait for We Day.
“Before I went to my first We Day, people were starting to talk about university,” she recalls. “I had not a clue about what I wanted to do.”
“After getting involved, after going to Ecuador,” she says, “I knew.”
Ms. Spiwak is studying International Development at the University of Ottawa. “That's my program,” she says with a touch of pride. “Studying in depth how to help people.”
She adds, “If someone like me didn't try to make a difference, we'd be going nowhere.”