“I have young people come up to me after my speeches, often new Canadians, who say their parents only want them to focus on academics because it will impact their marks,” says Mr. Kielburger.
“There is this myth about our youth being a selfish generation,” says Dr. Ungar. “Look at how many young people in this new generation are lobbying against homophobia, bullying, gay rights, fundraising for disease.” Dr. Ungar says he believes kids are hard-wired to want to do good things for other people.
Some of the kid activists might be ego-driven, Dr. Ungar adds. “But that’s okay. As they get older they move from simply doing what their parents tell them to do. They learn when they do good things, it makes them look good, and that’s a part of our natural development.”
“If anything, we as adults often don’t give our kids enough opportunity to do good for others. We don’t allow them to cook any more, to go out and buy presents for each other. Sometimes we overprotect our kids from opportunities to give.
“I’m pretty optimistic that the Internet will continue to propel youth activism forward, not just in Canada but globally. I see a tremendous trend emerging of kids understanding politics and their place in the broader world.”
The story goes that Bilaal Rajan was 4 when he read an article in the newspaper for a school project about a priest from his father’s religious community in Gujarat, India, who had died in the rubble of an earthquake. “I thought immediately of what life would be like without a father,” says Rajan, now 15 and a boarder at Lakefield College School near Peterborough, Ont. He asked his parents if he could sell clementines door-to-door in his Richmond Hill, Ont., neighbourhood, raising $350 for 2001 earthquake victims in India. Bilaal later sold handmade plastic plates ($1,200 for HIV/Aids orphans) and then cookies ($6,000 for hurricane-devastated Haiti).
Since then, he’s raised $5-million for various causes.
In March, 2005, the go-getter was named an official ambassador for UNICEF and he has since travelled the globe, including a 2009 visit with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who invited the boy to South Africa after he sent them a copy of his book, Making Change: Tips from an Underage Overachiever.
On that trip, Bilaal recalls meeting a young orphan named John, whose parents died of AIDS, leaving him the head of a family with three younger siblings. “He went to live with his aunt and uncle, who started making him pay for room and board. He only got to go to school once a week, and he was ecstatic to be there,” says Bilaal. “We were talking when his uncle came up and started shaking him, telling him he was going to beat him when he got home. And it was said so casually. That struck me and made me see everything around me in a different light now.”
Bilaal started the Barefoot Challenge four years ago, which is a global, one-day event where thousands of kids from more than 25 countries kick off their shoes and go barefoot for the day to better understand the struggles of underprivileged children. “Last year, we had 4,000 people participating on Facebook,” Bilaal says, adding he hasn’t “decided whether to monetize” the event yet.
“Because I got involved as a kid myself, I see how super-important it is for kids to get involved. In the next 30 years, one of the youth today could be the prime minister of Canada, the head of the United Nations or the next president of the United States. So if you’re going to get started, why not now?”
Maddy Bontogon in Nanaimo, B.C., became motivated to help Third World relief efforts at a Free the Children leadership conference she attended in Grade 9. The teen, who is now 18, started a Me to We youth-in-action club with two friends, with the goal of raising enough money to build a schoolroom in Kenya.
The group held car washes and bake sales, sold popcorn, had refreshment stands – “pretty much everything we could think of,” says Ms. Bontogon.
Gradually, her group started to grow, and in her final year, it raised $10,000 – enough to build one and a half schoolrooms. The club, she adds, is going strong, with this year’s graduating class hoping to raise enough to build two schoolrooms in Sierra Leone. Her father, who is from the Philippines, taught her that “you can make wonderful things out of nothing,” she says.