The diminutive young woman sitting in a throne-like chair in the hall of a prestigious Toronto private school could not have been faulted for being nervous about speaking to 700 fidgety boys at assembly one Monday morning.
But when Cheryl Perera took to the stage, it became instantly clear this slip of a thing was an articulate powerhouse – one whose fervour and first-hand knowledge of the global child sex trade silenced the room in 10 seconds flat.
The foot-tapping, neck-stretching and ceiling-gazing ceased as Ms. Perera, who founded the OneChild organization when she was a Toronto teenager to support victims of child sex tourism in developing countries, began showing slide after slide of boys and girls being paraded before leering men often old enough to be their grandfathers. When she played a video of an eight-year-old Filipino girl mouthing, "I love you" to a client, a female teacher started to cry. The boys' eyes bugged.
Ms. Perera, now 26, had become passionate about raising awareness and funds to fight sexual exploitation after researching the topic for a high-school project. Appalled at the atrocities, the then 16-year-old asked her parents if she could travel to their homeland of Sri Lanka to see for herself. After watching kids being ordered in bars as breezily as cocktails, Ms. Perera returned to Toronto and eventually started OneChild, in 2005, with the help of nine friends. Since then, the organization has raised more than $187,000 to build two rehabilitation centres in the Philippines for children who've escaped the sex trade.
Ms. Perera's story is impressive, but no longer unique. She's one of a growing throng of social-minded young charity crusaders who heed the call for change. Rather than turning to established foundations, they're starting their own. Youths – and in many cases, even younger children – are the driving force in the grassroots fight to help others.
Fanned by the flames of activism on the Internet, church and school groups, and government initiatives encouraging volunteerism as part of an education mandate, many students no longer sit at home playing video games and thinking about where their next bag of chips is coming from.
"There is a great consciousness emerging, and kids of all stripes are quite aware of social causes and are willing to participate," said Michael Ungar, a professor in Dalhousie University's School of Social Work, and the author of 2009's We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.
A Statistics Canada survey estimated that, in 2007, Canadians aged 15 to 24 were more likely to volunteer (58 per cent) than any other age group. "Fifteen years ago, young people, on a per capita basis, were the least likely to volunteer, the least likely to be engaged," says Marc Kielburger, whose brother Craig founded Free the Children in 1995 when he was 12 after reading an article about a 12-year-old child labourer who was murdered after speaking out in South Asia. "Now they are the most likely to volunteer, and that's stunning when you think of it."
And although the over-50s still contribute the bulk of the $8.3-billion claimed annuallyin donations from tax-filers, 4.4 million plugged-in Canadian youths are increasingly the ones starting the high-spirited campaigns invigorating social enterprise, some with big donor dollars attached.
In the past 15 years, dozens, if not hundreds, of initiatives have sprung up across Canada, some modest – from elementary-school children working solo to make a few bucks at a lemonade stand or draw art calendars – to full-fledged foundations, complete with boards of directors, accountants and communications departments. Fundraising professional associations and other august bodies now have awards aimed squarely at recognizing outstanding youths in philanthropy.
The initiatives can be anything from founding websites that generate income for widows in the Congo to sending backpacks and duffle bags to native kids on impoverished reserves. Many of the young philanthropists are under 20 when they start; a significant number are under 10.
Hannah Taylor, 15, "sees possibilities. That said, she's just a regular teen. She rides horses, and she hopes someone will ask her to the school dance," says her mom, Colleen.
Hannah was 5 when she was driving with her mother, and they ended up going down a seedy alleyway in Winnipeg. Colleen says her daughter was horrified to see a homeless man eating food from a dumpster; she asked about him for a year.
"Finally, I went to our pediatrician," said Colleen Taylor, "and said 'What is this? I don't know how to help her with this.' " Hannah ended up talking to her Grade 1 teacher to get advice.
Hannah and some friends then had a bake and art sale, raising $1,500 for a local shelter in Winnipeg. In 2004, at age 8, Hannah launched The Ladybug Foundation, a non-profit charitable foundation that has raised $2-million and has helped 54 shelters and food banks across the country.
"My mom volunteers in the office. My dad helps with some of the business side of things. But in the beginning it was very much me-driven.
"Since then, of course, so many people have helped get it started. But I'm quite a determined kid."
The Ladybug Foundation is now working on starting a chapter in the United States. And a few weeks ago, Hannah was invited to speak at a character education conference in Singapore, which invited teachers to help children learn how to "not just be smart people, but good people."
"I honestly believe my generation is a hopeful one. And I believe very strongly in something my friend Steven said to me: 'Don't be afraid of homelessness. Be afraid of a society that doesn't care.' He was homeless at the time. Now he has a job, and a physical home as well. He's now 25."
Understandably, Hannah's mother Colleen is proud of her daughter. "When she was younger, kids would tease her and say, 'Why do you like those stinky, dirty people?' And I'd say, do you want to stop this?"
The message could be: Adults get out of the way, we're coming through.
It is arguably the Kielburger brothers who are the foundation of this phenomenon in Canada. (Although they are not alone; across the world there are now quite a few others like them.) Their Free the Children organization is now an international juggernaut with inspirational We Days in select cities and they are hooked into a circuit of superstar activist celebrities such as Joe Jonas, Mia Farrow, the Dalai Lama and Shaquille O'Neal.
"When we first started Free the Children, the two uncoolest things to do was to try to get involved in activism or in glee clubs. Now they're the two coolest things," says Marc Kielburger, now a Harvard grad with a law degree from Oxford University.
He believes the reasons activism has become cool are positive peer pressure (a global phenomenon aided by social networking), celebrity engagement and the mandates for 40 hours of community involvement by high-school students from provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario, and the Yukon.
This generation of youth carries the pennant for many children thinking, "We don't have to wait for our parents or the government to make change. We can do it ourselves."
How do these kids get started? Sometimes it's an encounter with something that offends their innate sense of justice, as with Hannah; sometimes it's that plus something personal.
Robert Hampson was 4 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and was left almost blind from the surgery. Despite his disability, he started collecting soda-pop tabs a year later to raise money for a wheelchair for a family in need (the tabs sell to scrap-metal dealers). It started out slowly, but the Brantford, Ont., student, who is now 19, was relentless. Through word of mouth, sped along by the Internet and his poptabsforwheelchairs.com, he's now raised $17,000, and helped six families by providing four wheelchairs, a lift for a wheelchair-accessible van, a bathroom set-up and an adapted tricycle.
"We think we've collected close to 21 million tabs to date," he says.
"Now it's primarily the kids themselves who want to turn the tab collection into a school project," says Mr. Hampson, who had a phone call a few weeks ago from a 10-year-old in Australia seeking advice on how to start a similar project in his country.
"My family's been a huge support – donating about 300 volunteer hours a year. My mom drives me to schools to speak about tab campaigns. My dad, Marty, often drives through Ontario to pick them up. But it's been me that's really pushed for this."
The more cynical might suggest that parents are often behind these kid-driven endeavours. But Marc Kielburger says the vast majority of these young activists are self-starters, with some youth complaining that their parents discourage philanthropic pursuits because it takes away from their studies.
"I have young people come up to me after my speeches, often new Canadians, who say their parents only want them to focus on academics because it will impact their marks," says Mr. Kielburger.
"There is this myth about our youth being a selfish generation," says Dr. Ungar. "Look at how many young people in this new generation are lobbying against homophobia, bullying, gay rights, fundraising for disease." Dr. Ungar says he believes kids are hard-wired to want to do good things for other people.
Some of the kid activists might be ego-driven, Dr. Ungar adds. "But that's okay. As they get older they move from simply doing what their parents tell them to do. They learn when they do good things, it makes them look good, and that's a part of our natural development."
"If anything, we as adults often don't give our kids enough opportunity to do good for others. We don't allow them to cook any more, to go out and buy presents for each other. Sometimes we overprotect our kids from opportunities to give.
"I'm pretty optimistic that the Internet will continue to propel youth activism forward, not just in Canada but globally. I see a tremendous trend emerging of kids understanding politics and their place in the broader world."
The story goes that Bilaal Rajan was 4 when he read an article in the newspaper for a school project about a priest from his father's religious community in Gujarat, India, who had died in the rubble of an earthquake. "I thought immediately of what life would be like without a father," says Rajan, now 15 and a boarder at Lakefield College School near Peterborough, Ont. He asked his parents if he could sell clementines door-to-door in his Richmond Hill, Ont., neighbourhood, raising $350 for 2001 earthquake victims in India. Bilaal later sold handmade plastic plates ($1,200 for HIV/Aids orphans) and then cookies ($6,000 for hurricane-devastated Haiti).
Since then, he's raised $5-million for various causes.
In March, 2005, the go-getter was named an official ambassador for UNICEF and he has since travelled the globe, including a 2009 visit with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who invited the boy to South Africa after he sent them a copy of his book, Making Change: Tips from an Underage Overachiever.
On that trip, Bilaal recalls meeting a young orphan named John, whose parents died of AIDS, leaving him the head of a family with three younger siblings. "He went to live with his aunt and uncle, who started making him pay for room and board. He only got to go to school once a week, and he was ecstatic to be there," says Bilaal. "We were talking when his uncle came up and started shaking him, telling him he was going to beat him when he got home. And it was said so casually. That struck me and made me see everything around me in a different light now."
Bilaal started the Barefoot Challenge four years ago, which is a global, one-day event where thousands of kids from more than 25 countries kick off their shoes and go barefoot for the day to better understand the struggles of underprivileged children. "Last year, we had 4,000 people participating on Facebook," Bilaal says, adding he hasn't "decided whether to monetize" the event yet.
"Because I got involved as a kid myself, I see how super-important it is for kids to get involved. In the next 30 years, one of the youth today could be the prime minister of Canada, the head of the United Nations or the next president of the United States. So if you're going to get started, why not now?"
Maddy Bontogon in Nanaimo, B.C., became motivated to help Third World relief efforts at a Free the Children leadership conference she attended in Grade 9. The teen, who is now 18, started a Me to We youth-in-action club with two friends, with the goal of raising enough money to build a schoolroom in Kenya.
The group held car washes and bake sales, sold popcorn, had refreshment stands – "pretty much everything we could think of," says Ms. Bontogon.
Gradually, her group started to grow, and in her final year, it raised $10,000 – enough to build one and a half schoolrooms. The club, she adds, is going strong, with this year's graduating class hoping to raise enough to build two schoolrooms in Sierra Leone. Her father, who is from the Philippines, taught her that "you can make wonderful things out of nothing," she says.