Skip to main content

Razan Samara, at her high school in Mississauga, is one of 2.3 million children worldwide who participate in Free The Children and its sister programs each year.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

At 17, Razan Samara is a Free The Children veteran.

The high-school student from Mississauga has been involved in the charitable organization since the age of 12. While in social studies class, Ms. Samara read the story of how Craig Kielburger founded Free The Children when he was just 12 and was inspired to join. A self-proclaimed "shy kid," she says being involved has helped her find her voice.

"Now I'm probably the loudest kid you could ever meet," she says. Much of Ms. Samara's free time is devoted to organizing fundraising efforts for her school's Free The Children club – campaigns with names like We Are Silent and We Scare Hunger. Her club has also built homes with Habitat for Humanity and volunteered at local food banks. "I've realized that a huge portion of my happiness comes from helping other people," she says.

Now that she is applying to university, Ms. Samara says she hopes to some day get into medical school so she can work for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). An immigrant from Palestine, she says she always understood the challenges faced by people of her background during times of civil unrest, but says that Free The Children opened her eyes to the suffering of people all over the world.

"It makes you realize that no matter how different a person is, we go through the same troubles and turmoil and we need to be there to support each other," she says. "We need to work together to overcome all our problems."

Ms. Samara is just one of the 2.3 million children worldwide who participate in Free The Children and its sister programs each year. In the 20 years since Free The Children was founded by Thornhill, Ont., brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, it has grown into an international organization that also includes Me to We (a social enterprise that donates half its proceeds to Free The Children) and We Day (star-studded stadium events that celebrate young people's fundraising accomplishments). Through Free The Children's Adopt-a-Village development model, more than 1,000 schoolhouses have been built in countries such as Kenya, India, Ecuador, China and Haiti, and one million people now have improved access to clean water, health care and sanitation.

When asked his perspective on the organization's 20-year milestone, Craig Kielburger says, "I think it's highly improbable that we're still here.

"When we first applied for charitable status and the Canadian government said, 'You can't because no one is over 18 and you can't sign the paperwork,' it was very challenging to shift peoples' thinking," he says. "The idea that kids had the ability and responsibility to get involved in service projects, 20 years ago, that was foreign to people."

In the early days, there was a debate whether Free The Children should be discussed during school time or limited to an extracurricular activity, says Mr. Kielburger. Now, Free The Children is in the classrooms of 5,000 Canadian schools through the We Schools program.

"Every week we have a new curriculum resource to teach about a cause, every month there's a new civic campaign," he says. "We're engaging the next generation to serve."

Clearly, Free The Children has had a huge impact – one that grows with each passing year. But can organizations like Free The Children continue to engage the youth of today – the technologically savvy, YouTube-watching, social media-loving Generation Z – and will these kids become the socially responsible, globally engaged adults of tomorrow?

Generation Z youth (generally accepted as the under-20s and the children of Gen X, though it depends on whom you ask) have developed a reputation for being more socially aware than their millennial predecessors. Robert Barnard, chief executive officer of Toronto-based strategic consultancy Decode, has been studying youth attitudes and culture for 20 years, and he says Generation Z is definitely more aware of the world's problems than previous generations. "Each generation gets more aware of more issues because of the pervasiveness of the media," he says. "It continues to accelerate."

However, Mr. Barnard says his company has done studies on each generation as they come of age – Generations X, Y and Z – and have found this generation (specifically kids 13 through 19) is not necessarily any more involved in social justice or activism or than Y or X was at that age.

The voices of Gen Z's most passionate young activists – be it Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai or U.S. environmental crusader Kelsey Juliana – are inspiring and influential, but when it comes to the whole cohort, "people may be putting [Gen Z] up as more involved than they really are," he says.

When it comes to activism today, "there's a difference between breadth and depth. If you change the colour overlay on your Facebook photo because you believe in a particular cause, it's an interesting statement, but the real change takes depth and sometimes I think that's where young people can get it mixed up," says Mr. Barnard.

"Yes, it's easier to participate, but that doesn't mean we make change any faster," he says.

Mr. Kielberger agrees that the massive amount of information young people have access to can be overwhelming for them. "You can click, you can see the heartbreaking image of the little boy on the beach, but what are you supposed to do about it?" he says. "It is actually a careful balance – we don't want to expose young people and not give them the ability to help, because they'll just close their eyes and close their hearts. You need to give them tangible tools."

To remain relevant to their connected participants, Free The Children has developed new tech tools to augment their programming, says Mr. Kielburger. For example, We365 is an app that allows users to browse and take on "challenges" with their smartphone, as well as track their volunteerism so they can build their "social good portfolio" for a workplace or school application.

With the website Track Your Impact, people who buy a Me to We item – such as a Rafiki bracelet made by Kenya artisans – get a unique eight-digit code that tells them exactly what items were delivered to people in need and pinpoint on a map where it was delivered around the world.

"The generation we're now serving and engaging at home grew up with, 'I can check in on Foursquare, or I can track a package that I send with FedEx,' so why can't I see where my charitable donation is going?" says Mr. Kielburger.

As for whether alumni will remain engaged, Mr. Kielburger says they've found through third-party measurement that 80 per cent of participants continue to volunteer after being in the program and 79 per cent voted in the last federal election.

"I'm fascinated to see the long-term impact on philanthropy in our country and service and political involvement and people running for office," he says. "It's a giant experiment in civic engagement at a country level."

Megan Boler, professor of theory and policy studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, has spent the past five years studying how young people are redefining activism, including interviewing 70 participants of 2011's Occupy movement. She says that the programs such as Free The Children and We Schools are helping to take away the negative image of the activist, which for so long was portrayed as either violent and radicalized or very dismissive, like "long-haired hippies smoking pot," she says.

"This could be very significant, showing a larger sea-change in social institutions," says Prof. Boler. "The clear benefit to me is by exposing this activity at a younger age and to expose people to critical thinking and a collaborative sensibility at that age will make it possible for what's now known as the bad-word activism to become commonplace in the sense of a responsibility for one another and for the planet."

Laura Arndt, director of advocacy service for Ontario's Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, says that in order to help alumni continue on a path of social engagement, organizations including Free The Children should continue to expand their programming into postsecondary institutions. "We cannot forget that in university, the pressures on young people to make money and get the good jobs take over, and that's where a Me to We focus is needed," she says.

Young people need to learn that "you can still be an idealist and a mobilizer as an adult, you don't have to leave that behind," she adds.

Ashley Murphy would certainly agree with that sentiment. The 17-year-old from Ajax, Ont., was born HIV-positive and has shared her story with We Day crowds across Canada, working to reduce the stigma around HIV and deliver a message of positivity. Ms. Murphy says participating in Free The Children's Me to We program has been a profound experience for her. "It changed my life, it truly did."

In 2104, Ms. Murphy went on a Me to We trip to Kenya and was able to meet two girls there who were also HIV-positive, an encounter that still affects her emotionally when she recalls it.

"Me and the girls clicked instantly," she says. "We all knew what it was like to be youth having HIV and so we just really connected on a deeper level that not many people get to feel." Upon her return, Ms. Murphy embarked on a mission to raise $10,000 to build another school in Kenya. She's confident her generation will bring the Me to We mentality into adulthood.

"We'll be the adults soon," she says. "If we're making an impact now as young people, imagine what we can do 10 to 15 years from now."

Read the full Report on We Day here