A country’s president, Ontario’s premier, Glee and Degrassi cast members, Juno Award winners and Grammy nominees, a YouTube teen pop star, a Canadian football icon, multiplatinum artists, a famed African boys choir, a double amputee who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on his hands and in his wheelchair and human rights advocates, all in the same place at the same time – there’s only one thing it could be: We Day 2013 in Toronto.
It’s a rally, a rock concert, a reward, a motivational event, an educational experience, a celebration, a great big clutch of young people.
And it’s happening Friday at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
You can’t buy a ticket to We Day. But it would be wrong to say you can’t get a ticket for love or money.
Because it’s love (of helping others) and passion (for making the world a better place) that earn a ticket to We Day for thousands of young Torontonians and their teachers.
“People who get picked to go have been working hard,” says Brianna Morsfis, a Grade 6 student at Burrows Hall Junior Public School in the city’s northeast end. “It takes a lot of effort and responsibility and helping the world to be at We Day.”
Active in her social justice club at school, Brianna will be attending We Day for the first time.
“I’ve been helping with Me To We, helping with raising money and organization at my school,” she explains. “It’s amazing how a group of 12-year-olds made this club that ended up being huge with all these children making a difference in the world.”
Free The Children’s year-long educational program, which includes educational resources, student-led campaigns and We Day, is called We Act.
Last year, club members in Grades 4 to 6 participated in every campaign through the year in order to earn their way to We Day. They collected more than 600 canned goods on Halloween to donate to local food banks and they’re gearing up to do it again next month.
We Day no doubt will push them into high gear, as it’s meant to do.
“We’re beyond excited,” says Carmen Oliveira, the teacher who leads the social justice club at Burrows Hall.
Ms. Oliveira, who attended We Day for the first time last year with club members, also teaches social justice in the classroom. She says that Free The Children has transformed how she educates.
“It’s completely changed the way I look at integrating social justice with the curriculum,” she explains, “taking it out of the classroom and into the real world.”
We Day, she says, is both the spark and illumination for what young people can achieve in the world.
“It’s a day that lights a fire within you,” she says. “All that energy in one place, it’s absolutely pure, absolutely real. It makes you feel that you are literally able to take on anything. They really know how to choose the speakers and celebrities to get [the audience] going.”
Some celebrities are names everyone knows, especially everyone under 20: Jonas Brothers, Serena Ryder and Demi Lovato.
The teens and preteens, Ms. Oliveira says, “are so into social media and celebrities. And these are not just celebrities who entertain and play well to the crowd. They’re actually involved and using their celebrity to raise awareness.”
She adds, “Amazing entertainers add to the coolness factor at that age.”
What’s especially impressive for the kids, Ms. Oliveira says, is that “you can have so much money and fame and still care about the world.”
Not all the celebrities who will take the stage on We Day are entertainers. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is president of Liberia, the first woman leader of that nation. Chris Hadfield is the first Canadian to walk in space and the first astronaut to become an Internet sensation.
And Spencer West.
He lost his legs to disease at 5 and, as an adult, found his calling as an activist, inspirational speaker and international ambassador for Free The Children.
Five years ago, he helped build a school in Kenya’s Maasai Mara national reserve. Last year, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, raising more than $500,000 to bring sustainable clean water projects to Free The Children communities.
Now, he’s getting ready for his 24th We Day appearance.
He became involved with Free The Children, he explains, when a friend who knew he was struggling with a search for meaning in his life invited him to go to Kenya as a volunteer with Me to We.
“It changed my life forever,” he says. “Hundreds of Kenyan kids gave me a tour of their school and asked me literally every possible question about how I lost my legs through a genetic disease. One girl said she didn’t know the loss of legs could happen to white people, too.”
Mr. West realized in Kenya that “I could use my story to give back. I could tell the kids at We Day, ‘I don’t have legs and this is what I did. If I could do it, anybody can do it.’ ”
This year, with education as the theme, Mr. West says he’ll talk about “some of the life lessons I’ve learned along the way.”
He’ll tell stories about the kids and their schools in Kenya, where he volunteers every summer.
“It didn’t seem right to just talk the talk,” he says. “I wanted to walk the walk as well.”
Young activist Sydney Brouillard-Coyle, who has already announced her candidacy for prime minister at some future date, will introduce Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
The 13-year-old travelled to Kenya on a Me To We trip over the summer.
“It was definitely a life-changing trip,” she says, and an experience she wants to share.
She may talk about meeting Mariam, who argued with her parents because she wanted to continue with her education after Grade 8 while they insisted she get married. She may talk about a conversation with a teenaged girl who has to go to work at 5:30 a.m.
And she may also talk about bullying at Canadian schools, which she experienced last year in reaction to her passion.
“I was writing on all my books and pencil cases, ‘Be The Change,’” she explains. “People just didn’t understand me and what I stood for. A bit of it may have been jealousy.”
That bullying just gave Sydney another cause for which to stand up. And this year, she’s even more committed to Me To We.
She plans “to do a lot of fundraising, adopt a village and then next year literally lay the bricks for a school in the village.”
When her words resonate around the Air Canada Centre on Friday, there will be 20,000 people who will understand her and what she stands for.
Among them: Brianna Morsfis.
“It’s really cool being in We Act,” Brianna says. “You get to do lots of good things around the world and in our community. It’s really cool how with just a little help we can change a lot of things.”
We Day Toronto: The lineup
Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian President.
Demi Lovato, singer-songwriter and Free The Children ambassador.
Jonas Brothers, pop rock band.
Imagine Dragons, rock band.
Darren Criss, cast member from Glee (host for We Day Toronto).
Jacob Artist, cast member from Glee.
Martin Luther King III, human rights advocate and eldest son of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Austin Mahone, pop singer and YouTube sensation.
Serena Ryder, musician.
Chris Hadfield, retired Canadian astronaut.
Barenaked Ladies, rock band.
Cast members from Degrassi.
Michael (Pinball) Clemons, CFL Hall of Famer.
Craig and Marc Kielburger, co-founders of Free the Children.
Kenyan Boys Choir, African male choir.
Youth speakers Hannah Alper, Vishal Vijay and Sydney Brouillard-Coyle.
Spencer West, double amputee who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
Molly Burke, activist against bullying.
Robin Wiszowaty, Free the Children program director in Ghana and Kenya.
Chris Tse, national spoken-word champion.