At only 12 years old, Vishal Vijay has done more to improve the lives of others than many do in a lifetime.
The Oakville, Ont., student shared with 20,000 youth and teachers at We Day at Toronto's Air Canada Centre on Friday his efforts to bring clean drinking water to Sierra Leone, his letter-writing campaign to connect Canadian youth with less fortunate children in India, and a youth group he founded to raise funds for charitable causes.
"We've had to face fears in order to stand up for what we believe in," he told the crowd, rallying them to support their own causes.
His words were greeted with the thundering applause characteristic of an event that aims to energize young people and inspire them to make change.
We Day was launched by Free The Children founding brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger in 2007 to educate young activists on how to make a difference in the world. It kick-starts the year-long We Act program, which has a specific theme and goal each year, and has raised $37-million since it began. This year's goal is to build 200 schools in several developing countries through a coin-collecting campaign.
The ticket to the star-studded event is free, but students must have taken one local and one global action to attend the rally, which featured presentations, speeches and performances by the likes of Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers, retired astronaut Chris Hadfield and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
"We Day is what ignited my spark," Vishal said. "It's absolutely amazing to be able to feel the passion of others and to be surrounded by a community who are similar-minded."
This was his third year attending, and he said each year he goes home feeling even more inspired to do good.
"Youth do have the power to change the world," Vishal said. "We are not just leaders of tomorrow, we are the leaders of today."
There was no shortage of young leaders committed to various social causes on stage and in the crowd, including 13-year-old Sydney Brouillard-Coyle, who has already announced her plan to become prime minister.
Motivational speaker Molly Burke took the stage again this year to discuss her experience with bullying after she lost her vision as a teenager.
Ms. Burke said on her 14th birthday, the girls she thought were her best friends promised to dress her up. Instead of using mousse to style her hair, the girls lathered up whipped cream and wrote the words "Loser" and "Pathetic" on her face with makeup. Ms. Burke couldn't see what was happening but the snickers and camera flashes told her something was wrong.
"Words are powerful. They have the power to tear us down but they also have the power to build us back up," she said.
Follow youth issues with We365 app
The Globe and Mail will be sharing its stories on the issues youth care about through the We365 app of Free The Children, as part of an initiative announced at We Day festivities at Toronto's Air Canada Centre on Friday.
This partnership will see The Globe bringing young people stories on subjects that affect them at home, such as bullying, and far-reaching topics like the shooting of education advocate Malala Yousafzai, environmental concerns such as protecting endangered species and democratic issues, including fair elections.
We365, an initiative of Free The Children and Telus Corp., is a free mobile app and website that enables children to track and verify their volunteer activities.
For every sign-up on We365 between Oct. 18 and April, 2014, Free The Children will immunize a child in a community participating in its Adopt a Village program.
We365 also allows users to log hours they spend volunteering, which can be printed out for a supervisor's signature and submitted to school or work.