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we day guest column

Marc and Craig Kielburger, founders of Save the Children speak during We Day Toronto at theAir Canada Centre in Toronto last September.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

For a truly uplifting, lump-in-your-throat and tears-in-your-eyes experience, attend the opening of a new school in a developing community. The celebration makes Canada Day in Ottawa look like a Sunday afternoon tea party.

Without exception, the entire village turns out for the occasion. The school building is festooned with decorations as though it were the biggest holiday of the year. Children strut about proudly, showing off their new uniforms, while local musicians and choirs perform. When the ribbon is cut, you'd better get out of the way or risk being trampled by the stampede of children. Every eye reflects the gleam of hope.

Yet, when we first started building schools 18 years ago, we returned to visit to find half the desks unoccupied. Hopeful faces we remembered from the grand opening were missing. We'd ask why they weren't in class. In one place, children were out sick with typhoid. In another, the nearest well was a three-hour walk away so the girls spent their daylight hours walking to fetch water. In Nicaragua, a 10-year-old boy told us he dropped out because his parents were sick. As the oldest boy, he had to look after the family livestock – and his younger siblings.

It was an early, painful lesson on the interconnectedness of poverty, and the barriers that lie between a child and the schoolroom door.

Schools need clean, accessible water. Otherwise, children fall prey to water-borne diseases like cholera. The well must be close or else girls, who are responsible for fetching water through most of the developing world, end up losing precious school time.

If there is a well, the community must have the knowledge and the financial resources to manage and maintain it; therefore communities also need businesses to generate income.

Health care is also crucial. So are a sustainable food source, proper nutrition and sanitation practices. Without them, students and budding entrepreneurs won't thrive.

The Adopt a Village model is Free the Children's answer to that complex web of interconnected issues. It's a whole-community approach that encompasses schools, water, alternative incomes, health care and food security. Within five years of full implementation of our programs, communities stand on their own.

But it all starts with the school, the building that contains a young person's dreams and is the first, best start for a community hoping to better itself.

We have launched our Year of Education to reach the most vulnerable children with the opportunity of education. Our goal is to build 200 schools to add to the 700 schools and schoolrooms Free the Children has already built. We will also continue to provide those pillars that are essential for a community to thrive – education, clean water, health care, food security and alternative income and livelihood programs.

This year, we invite young Canadians, their parents, their schools, and Canadian businesses to help out. Collect loose change and drop it off for the We Create Change campaign at any Royal Bank of Canada branch. Twenty dollars in change buys one brick for a school, and 500 bricks builds a school. Imagine what could be accomplished if every school and company in Canada adopted a sister school in a developing community?

Our goal is to build a future where every child is free to transform her life, her community, and her world. It begins with education.

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