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we day

Ann Marie Maloney and her students at Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary School in St. Catharines, Ont., got involved in We Day activities.

Here's the challenge for educators who work with students all year long to support Free the Children initiatives: how to distribute the tickets to We Day.

More kids want to go than can be accommodated.

Ann Marie Maloney is a teacher with the Niagara Catholic District Board. She has a Grade 7 class with 20 students at Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary School in St. Catharines and teaches Grade 8 History.

Ms. Maloney had to figure out how to distribute the 13 We Day tickets she was allotted for her students this year. It's a problem facing every educator and group leader who engages youth with the principles and projects of Free the Children.

But it's a good problem to have, attesting to the success of We Day and Free the Children.

Some see attending We Day as a potent motivator for new recruits to social justice activities. Others see the event as a reward for fulfilling a commitment made last year. "I look to see those students who lived out the philosophy," Ms. Maloney says. "That's the criteria, I tell my students."

She adds, "It's a perfect learning experience for them: You reap what you sow." But, she adds, "They all worked so hard and they all want to go."

The teacher sympathizes. "We Day is like nothing I've ever experienced," she says. "The energy and passion in that room is unbelievable."

At White Oaks Secondary School in Oakville, students who want to go to We Day are invited to submit one paragraph about "what it would mean to them to go" and another paragraph about "what they would like to do with the [social justice] committee in the coming year," explains Patty Toohy, an educational assistant who's worked at the school for 25 years. She started the "WOSS for Free the Children" committee in 2009.

"There were five or six kids at the first meeting," she recalls. That September, White Oaks was given tickets to go to We Day. "And that changed everything," she says. At a recent committee meeting, more than 70 kids showed up. "They all know about We Day and they're all hoping that I'll select them to go."

White Oaks, with a student population of about 2,000, is allotted 15 to 30 tickets each year, Ms. Toohy says.

"Kids see it as the kick-off to the year. They love being motivated by all the people who have their stories to tell, they love the musical entertainment obviously.

"It makes them feel like they really can do something and gives them the confidence that one person can make a difference."

Karyne Todd teaches Grade 7 and Grade 8 students at Jack Miner Senior Public School in Scarborough, which has a student population of about 2,000. She's taken students to We Day every year since it began in 2007.

"I cry every time," she admits. "We Day, in my opinion, is twofold. It's an energizer and motivator, but even more, a reward."

Ms. Todd tells students, "You have to make a commitment to Free the Children, and then you'll be issued a ticket."

She recalls, "When I started five years ago, I had to hand select and convince eight kids to go to We Day. Now, probably 1,000 kids, half the school, want to go. "It's remarkable what's happened in five years. They all want to feel like they did something, that they made change, that they're part of it. I think it has changed our school, even the teachers. "

Ms. Todd, for example, incorporates themes of fairness, discrimination and caring in English classes, using such novels as Uglies and The Hunger Games. Learning and discussion is followed by action.

In fall, her students focus on local initiatives, raising money for several neighbourhood families at Christmas.

"We give them a pretty spectacular Christmas," she says.

When they learned about a high-school student in need, a refugee who was going off to university, they bought him a laptop.

The funds come from dances, auctions, bake sales, food drives and We Scare Hunger, a Free the Children annual campaign.

After Christmas, the students take on global initiatives in Kenya and Rwanda, raising funds to build a school, to support water sanitation and alternative income sources so girls can go to school.

"We're trying to organize an alumni trip to Africa for students from the last five years," Ms. Todd says. "Free the Children has taught us that we can be dreamers."

At Mother Teresa in St. Catharines, Ms. Maloney uses the Me to We book as the foundation for her literacy class.

"I try to build a sense of community in class," she explains, "to come together as a team." But she also encourages them to understand the power of one – "how one person like Craig [Kielburger] was able to be the change by being globally aware."

The fundraising goal for the 300 students at Mother Teresa was $2,000 last year.

"We raised $5,000," Ms. Maloney says proudly. Although there were dances, auctions, raffles and an Easter Egg hunt, most of the money came from the sale of Italian pizzelle cookies.

"I would make the batter at home and every Friday we would make the cookies," Ms. Maloney says.

"The smell permeated the school. I would have parents putting in orders."

The money went to a Adopt a Village in Kenya, Free the Children's long-term sustainable community development model.

Pasta dinners and art auctions are popular fundraisers at White Oaks in Oakville.

The money goes to a new high school for girls that's being built in Kenya by Free the Children.

A Me to We Trip to Kenya is planned for March and 17 people have signed up so far, Ms. Toohy says. "My school is incredible. They're a very involved group of kids."

There's gratification in that for Ms. Toohy but there's also a very special gift for her at the end of the year.

"They write these incredible letters about what Free the Children has done for them and how it's changed their lives and changed what they want to do with their futures."