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we day 2018

Olivia Holt, star of Cloak & Dagger, does some beading with Kenyan artisans in the ME to WE program during her one-week visit to the African country last year.Juozas Cernius

The Globe and Mail and WE Charity are partners on a range of content and initiatives, including WE Day at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Sept. 20. This story is part of a special report on the organization and the event.

Olivia Holt says she was in a “weird headspace” at the beginning of last year, enjoying her rising fame but somehow still not feeling emotionally satisfied.

But those feelings didn’t last long. A trip to Kenya with We Charity in August of 2017 brought her out of it, giving her a renewed perspective on life.

“I went there hoping to change some lives, not realizing how much they were going to change my life,” explains the star of Cloak & Dagger, a U.S. television program distributed by Disney and part of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Ms. Holt spent a week completely off the grid while in Kenya, without a phone or access to the internet. She walked with a Kenyan mother to collect water in 20-litre jerry cans, immersing herself in that family’s day-to-day struggle for fresh water.

She also visited a farm with an all-girls secondary school to learn about organic agriculture, toured a school, beaded with Me to We artisans in a shop, and worked with community members to construct a new classroom at an elementary school in a We village.

All that, she says, gave her a renewed sense of being.

“I gained more perspective in a week than I had in my entire two decades of living,” says Ms. Holt, who turned 21 in early August. “It was truly an incredible experience and I made some lifelong friends there. I learned a lot about not just that culture, but also of myself while being there.”

The trip, which came just after she got word she would be playing one of the title characters from Cloak & Dagger (Tandy Bowen, whose superhero alter-ego is Dagger), also ended up helping her acting career.

Tennessee-born Ms. Holt, raised mostly in Mississippi before heading to Los Angeles to pursue her career, grew up in a supportive and loving home, grateful for the family and friends she had. But when she went to Kenya, and as she has become more involved with We Charity, bearing witness to the hardships of children around the world, she says she’s been able to harness those experiences on screen with her new character Dagger, who had a tough upbringing.

“It gave me a lot of help to dig into that role for sure,” says Ms. Holt, who began singing and acting at 13 and got her big break with a role on the Disney show Kickin’ It as a teenager.

(Her performance as Dagger was rewarded in August with a Teen Choice Award for best “summer TV star” and her simultaneous singing career is soaring, too. Her song Generous topped Billboard’s top-100 chart for dance club songs in March. She now boasts more than five million followers on Instagram.)

Ms. Holt’s African trip was just one of the ways she’s been involved in We Charity activities. She has also been part of six We Day stadium shows to date, including last year in Ottawa. She’ll be appearing at We Day in Toronto on Sept. 20.

She sat backstage at her first We Day and says she was inspired by everything that was unfolding in front of her – from the people who got up to tell their stories about how they overcame hardships while growing up to the motivational speakers who lifted people up.

“I just remember sitting there and thinking how moving it was to have something like this out there in the world to help young people use their voice and have impact not just locally but globally as well. I thought it was incredible, the work they do,” she explains.

“Every time I attend a We Day event I learn something new and I always feel way more perspective not just for the world I live in, but also the world that’s happening around me.”

Although barely out of her teenage years herself, Ms. Holt says every time she is able to hear from the next generation of We Day speakers, ambassadors or attendees, she feels positive for the future.

She says she’s noticed so many young people who are confident in their voice, not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

“I think that for everything – whether it’s politically or environmentally or corporately – this generation to come believes there are ways to make a difference if we work together,” Ms. Holt explains.

And now that Ms. Holt has been involved for a few years with We Charity, she’s starting to look ahead to what kind of impact she could personally have in the future.

Every event she attends, she says, she’s trying to listen more. And what she hears inspires her to want to try to make an impact either in her hometown or back in Africa. “Fingers crossed one day that happens,” she says.

Actress Olivia Holt, centre, has also been involved in WE Day, including in Ottawa.WeDay