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Free The Children reaches beyond its ‘middle-class, suburban, homogeneous contingent of kids’

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

At the We Day celebration in Saskatoon last year, there was a group that had come a long way – in more ways than one.

Seven students travelled 835 kilometres to Saskatoon from Ben McIntyre, a one-classroom school in Uranium City, Sask. Uranium City was once a booming town of 10,000, but the population has dwindled to just 80 in the years since the 1982 closure of the nearby Eldorado uranium mine. The only access out of this northern community is by flight or by the Lake Athabasca winter ice road, which is open for approximately six weeks in the winter.

Despite living in a small and isolated community, the intrepid students from Grades 5 through 9 – who call themselves Go! Students for Positive Change – generated enough money through fundraising efforts to pay for their transportation and accommodations in the big city. (Any group that completes the We Schools program receives free tickets from the organization to a We Day in their area – a stadium-sized event set up like a rock concert where We Schools groups are recognized for their fundraising efforts among celebrities and inspiring speakers.)

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"The students wrote letters, managed the monies raised, made posters, baked, cooked a ham dinner and pasta lunch for the community," says Dana Case, a mental health therapist for Uranium City who flies in three times a month and the administrator of the We Schools program at Ben McIntyre. Students also had to volunteer by doing "random acts of kindness" for community members. "After the activities were complete, the students had their activities logged and signed by the person they had helped," she says.

The trip to Saskatoon was an eye-opening experience for many of the students. "Some of the students had never visited a big [city] or even stayed in a hotel, watched a movie in a theatre, or listened to live music with flashing lights," she says. "One of the students commented to me when he realized that the group had reached our financial goal to attend We Day, 'Dana, I am so excited. Finally I will get to meet other people that are not my cousins!'"

During their time in Saskatoon, the students volunteered at the Saskatoon Friendship Inn, a soup kitchen and community centre. And by the end of the school year, they had raised $4,500 and donated it to the Inn.

"Before we formed this group, sometimes the students would feel that because they live in an isolated and small community [they couldn't] make a difference, and that nobody even cares about us up here,'" says Ms. Case. "This attitude has completely changed.

"We Day sent a message to our students, that no matter where you come from, everyone can make an impact."

While some might think of Free The Children and We Day as primarily a middle-class, suburban, homogeneous contingent of kids, Alyssa Chan, director of business development for Free The Children, says reaching out to isolated, vulnerable and at-risk children is a priority for the organization. To that end, they work with school boards and provincial departments of education to identify students in communities with the greatest need.

To engage the kids effectively and ensure consistency, they work with teachers and support staff within the schools they operate in, says Ms. Chan. "We're working in partnership with teachers, someone they're seeing every day who is focusing the students toward that year-long local or global action," she says.

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To keep things relevant to students regardless of their backgrounds, We Schools lets students choose the local and global actions that they want to champion, says Ms. Chan. "As long as they've actually showed us they are making a difference, they've learned about a problem they're solving, we recognize it in the same way, and that is a really important part of the program."

Laura Arndt, director of advocacy service for Ontario's Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, says that for a service organization like Free The Children to engage isolated, marginalized or at-risk youth, they need to ensure that these young people can see themselves in the program.

"It has to speak to the cultural base that those kids come from," she says. "These are children that if you're going to work with them, you can't just invite them in and then leave. The most vulnerable and at-risk children need you to stay engaged, because often they are struggling themselves.

"When I think of our vulnerable groups – First Nations, disability, special needs – the reality is these young people don't even have an understanding that they have a voice, that they can be part of the conversation."

Ms. Arndt says she loves "the Kielburger approach" because it challenges youth out of their passive nature. "The sense that, 'I can change the world,' that's a pretty powerful thing to give a child, a sense of empowerment that they can nurture throughout their lifetime."

However, she points out that for youth who are so "tremendously marginalized," it's not about passivity. "If no one's listening, it doesn't matter whether you're mobilized or not, it's not an issue of being passive, it's being excluded."

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Craig Kielburger, co-founder and chief executive officer of Free The Children, says they've made it a priority to engage more with aboriginal youth. Through sister organization Me to We, it runs a program called Sacred Circle in reserves or in urban environments with a large percentage of self-identified aboriginal young people. Through workshops that incorporate aboriginal principles of the Seven Teachings and the Medicine Wheel, Sacred Circle seeks to empower aboriginal youth as leaders.

"We want to shift the narrative from the idea that youth are problems to be solved, to youths who are problem solvers," he says.

To reach even more young people, Ms. Arndt suggests that Free The Children might want to partner not just in the school system but also in communities and in the health-care system, because "education isn't just limited to the classroom," she says.

"When you have kids who are dropping out of school at [a rate of] 50 to 70 per cent, those are the young people who need to be mobilized and the kids you really want to target."

Back in Uranium City, Ms. Case says she hopes the Ben McIntyre students will inspire other schools in the Athabasca Basin to follow suit. The students have continued to act as "local champions," providing volunteer services for families in need and being positive role models.

"These young people are going to do amazing things in their lives," she says. "They totally immersed themselves in the [We Schools] program and they continue to make an impact in their community."

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Read the full Report on We Day here

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