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Hannah Taylor, 15, runs the Ladybug Foundation, which raises money to fight homelessness. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods for The Globe and Mail)
Hannah Taylor, 15, runs the Ladybug Foundation, which raises money to fight homelessness. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods for The Globe and Mail)

Starting a charity at 8? Meet the generation taking action Add to ...

“Finally, I went to our pediatrician,” said Colleen Taylor, “and said ‘What is this? I don’t know how to help her with this.’ ” Hannah ended up talking to her Grade 1 teacher to get advice.

Hannah and some friends then had a bake and art sale, raising $1,500 for a local shelter in Winnipeg. In 2004, at age 8, Hannah launched The Ladybug Foundation, a non-profit charitable foundation that has raised $2-million and has helped 54 shelters and food banks across the country.

“My mom volunteers in the office. My dad helps with some of the business side of things. But in the beginning it was very much me-driven.

“Since then, of course, so many people have helped get it started. But I’m quite a determined kid.”

The Ladybug Foundation is now working on starting a chapter in the United States. And a few weeks ago, Hannah was invited to speak at a character education conference in Singapore, which invited teachers to help children learn how to “not just be smart people, but good people.”

“I honestly believe my generation is a hopeful one. And I believe very strongly in something my friend Steven said to me: ‘Don’t be afraid of homelessness. Be afraid of a society that doesn’t care.’ He was homeless at the time. Now he has a job, and a physical home as well. He’s now 25.”

Understandably, Hannah’s mother Colleen is proud of her daughter. “When she was younger, kids would tease her and say, ‘Why do you like those stinky, dirty people?’ And I’d say, do you want to stop this?”

The message could be: Adults get out of the way, we’re coming through.

It is arguably the Kielburger brothers who are the foundation of this phenomenon in Canada. (Although they are not alone; across the world there are now quite a few others like them.) Their Free the Children organization is now an international juggernaut with inspirational We Days in select cities and they are hooked into a circuit of superstar activist celebrities such as Joe Jonas, Mia Farrow, the Dalai Lama and Shaquille O’Neal.

“When we first started Free the Children, the two uncoolest things to do was to try to get involved in activism or in glee clubs. Now they’re the two coolest things,” says Marc Kielburger, now a Harvard grad with a law degree from Oxford University.

He believes the reasons activism has become cool are positive peer pressure (a global phenomenon aided by social networking), celebrity engagement and the mandates for 40 hours of community involvement by high-school students from provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario, and the Yukon.

This generation of youth carries the pennant for many children thinking, “We don’t have to wait for our parents or the government to make change. We can do it ourselves.”

How do these kids get started? Sometimes it’s an encounter with something that offends their innate sense of justice, as with Hannah; sometimes it’s that plus something personal.

Robert Hampson was 4 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was left almost blind from the surgery. Despite his disability, he started collecting soda-pop tabs a year later to raise money for a wheelchair for a family in need (the tabs sell to scrap-metal dealers). It started out slowly, but the Brantford, Ont., student, who is now 19, was relentless. Through word of mouth, sped along by the Internet and his poptabsforwheelchairs.com, he’s now raised $17,000, and helped six families by providing four wheelchairs, a lift for a wheelchair-accessible van, a bathroom set-up and an adapted tricycle.

“We think we’ve collected close to 21 million tabs to date,” he says.

“Now it’s primarily the kids themselves who want to turn the tab collection into a school project,” says Mr. Hampson, who had a phone call a few weeks ago from a 10-year-old in Australia seeking advice on how to start a similar project in his country.

“My family’s been a huge support – donating about 300 volunteer hours a year. My mom drives me to schools to speak about tab campaigns. My dad, Marty, often drives through Ontario to pick them up. But it’s been me that’s really pushed for this.”

The more cynical might suggest that parents are often behind these kid-driven endeavours. But Marc Kielburger says the vast majority of these young activists are self-starters, with some youth complaining that their parents discourage philanthropic pursuits because it takes away from their studies.

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