Time flies when you're changing the world.
It's been two decades since a crew of seventh-graders huddled in my parents' living room north of Toronto, determined to free children overseas from poverty and exploitation, and children at home from the discouraging myth that they're too young to contribute to a better world.
Our mission has never wavered, but our tactics have certainly evolved as we learned countless lessons along the way.
We learned that kicking down doors to free children from carpet factories isn't enough to stop child labour – we had to tackle the underlying poverty in which their families lived, through education.
Then we learned that providing education isn't just building schools – we had to overcome the barriers that prevented children from going to school, by also providing clean water, health care, food security and reliable sources of income.
Most importantly, we learned that sustainable development is not achieved by "teaching one man to fish," but by training individuals to teach 10 others. At Free The Children's all-girls' secondary schools in Kenya, for example, students bring the agricultural techniques they study back to their families, so that whole villages can thrive long-term.
These critical lessons have helped us change more than a million lives overseas. But we're equally motivated by our mission here at home – to empower a generation of young Canadians to be active agents of change.
We learned that young people are often seen not as problem solvers but as problems to be solved. The bulk of youth programming in the developed world is aimed at keeping kids "out of trouble." So we designed camps, in-school workshops and teacher curriculums to get kids out into their communities – volunteering, fundraising and raising awareness about causes they care about.
And we created We Day – an annual celebration of the impact that young people have made in their communities. Worldwide, the 200,000 attendees at We Days in 14 cities have generated more than $60-million in social value over the past year. And after We Day this year, they'll start all over again.
We've found that service learning builds life skills, leadership and a sense of global citizenship that makes helping a lifelong habit. Eighty per cent of We Day alumni continue to volunteer an average of 150 hours a year, and 83 per cent donate regularly to charity.
A startling 54 per cent start their own social justice campaigns, and 19 per cent even create their own non-profit or social enterprise. If you want a real "economic action plan" that tackles Canada's entrepreneurship deficit, challenge young persons to solve a pressing social problem, and watch them innovate.
We've learned that the only thing blocking young people from changing the world is feeling alone against overwhelming issues. When they discover at We Day that they're part of a movement of 2.5 million others, and then return to their classrooms and recruit even more of their peers through the year-long We Schools program, nothing can stop them.
The common theme in all of our lessons from the past 20 years is empowerment. Success to us is not just a girl overseas going to school – but also leading her village to a better future. Success is not just a boy in Toronto volunteering in his neighbourhood – but also encouraging 10 friends to join him.
In that way, it won't take a simple living room to hold our crew of young change-makers. Or even a sports stadium.
Maybe 20 years from now, every day will be We Day.