The diminutive young woman sitting in a throne-like chair in the hall of a prestigious Toronto private school could not have been faulted for being nervous about speaking to 700 fidgety boys at assembly one Monday morning.
But when Cheryl Perera took to the stage, it became instantly clear this slip of a thing was an articulate powerhouse – one whose fervour and first-hand knowledge of the global child sex trade silenced the room in 10 seconds flat.
The foot-tapping, neck-stretching and ceiling-gazing ceased as Ms. Perera, who founded the OneChild organization when she was a Toronto teenager to support victims of child sex tourism in developing countries, began showing slide after slide of boys and girls being paraded before leering men often old enough to be their grandfathers. When she played a video of an eight-year-old Filipino girl mouthing, “I love you” to a client, a female teacher started to cry. The boys’ eyes bugged.
Ms. Perera, now 26, had become passionate about raising awareness and funds to fight sexual exploitation after researching the topic for a high-school project. Appalled at the atrocities, the then 16-year-old asked her parents if she could travel to their homeland of Sri Lanka to see for herself. After watching kids being ordered in bars as breezily as cocktails, Ms. Perera returned to Toronto and eventually started OneChild, in 2005, with the help of nine friends. Since then, the organization has raised more than $187,000 to build two rehabilitation centres in the Philippines for children who’ve escaped the sex trade.
Ms. Perera’s story is impressive, but no longer unique. She’s one of a growing throng of social-minded young charity crusaders who heed the call for change. Rather than turning to established foundations, they’re starting their own. Youths – and in many cases, even younger children – are the driving force in the grassroots fight to help others.
Fanned by the flames of activism on the Internet, church and school groups, and government initiatives encouraging volunteerism as part of an education mandate, many students no longer sit at home playing video games and thinking about where their next bag of chips is coming from.
“There is a great consciousness emerging, and kids of all stripes are quite aware of social causes and are willing to participate,” said Michael Ungar, a professor in Dalhousie University’s School of Social Work, and the author of 2009’s We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.
A Statistics Canada survey estimated that, in 2007, Canadians aged 15 to 24 were more likely to volunteer (58 per cent) than any other age group. “Fifteen years ago, young people, on a per capita basis, were the least likely to volunteer, the least likely to be engaged,” says Marc Kielburger, whose brother Craig founded Free the Children in 1995 when he was 12 after reading an article about a 12-year-old child labourer who was murdered after speaking out in South Asia. “Now they are the most likely to volunteer, and that’s stunning when you think of it.”
And although the over-50s still contribute the bulk of the $8.3-billion claimed annuallyin donations from tax-filers, 4.4 million plugged-in Canadian youths are increasingly the ones starting the high-spirited campaigns invigorating social enterprise, some with big donor dollars attached.
In the past 15 years, dozens, if not hundreds, of initiatives have sprung up across Canada, some modest – from elementary-school children working solo to make a few bucks at a lemonade stand or draw art calendars – to full-fledged foundations, complete with boards of directors, accountants and communications departments. Fundraising professional associations and other august bodies now have awards aimed squarely at recognizing outstanding youths in philanthropy.
The initiatives can be anything from founding websites that generate income for widows in the Congo to sending backpacks and duffle bags to native kids on impoverished reserves. Many of the young philanthropists are under 20 when they start; a significant number are under 10.
Hannah Taylor, 15, “sees possibilities. That said, she’s just a regular teen. She rides horses, and she hopes someone will ask her to the school dance,” says her mom, Colleen.
Hannah was 5 when she was driving with her mother, and they ended up going down a seedy alleyway in Winnipeg. Colleen says her daughter was horrified to see a homeless man eating food from a dumpster; she asked about him for a year.