The truth is, it's tough. Daily life gets in the way. Between work, kids and keeping it all together, our good intentions remain just that: good intentions. It's hard to grasp the thread of a good idea and turn it into something that will really help others.
But it only takes one person to say, "Wow, that's a great idea; we can make that happen." And that person, in turn, brings in more people, then together they weave that thread into a great tapestry. That's what happened at my son's elementary school, where the kids raised enough money to build a school in Haiti. Watching the tapestry take shape left me breathless, marvelling at the creativity and determination of our kids and wanting to do more.
So here's what I'm doing to make a difference. I'm telling the story so that some of you will be inspired to make a difference and help others, too.
A chance encounter
Every year, two families – the Mieles and the Novakovics – from All Saints Catholic School in Toronto vacation together in St. Petersburg, Fla. One night at the hotel, moms Mary Miele and Jacquie Novakovic started talking to another guest, Fintan Kilbride, who just happens to be on the board of directors of Free the Children in Toronto, an international network of kids in more than 20 countries committed to ending the exploitation of children. Kilbride told the two women impassioned stories of how some kids at home in Canada were raising money to help build schools in underprivileged countries, including one school that had started with a penny drive. "We started to think, Wouldn't this be great to do at our kids' school?" says Mary. They exchanged phone numbers and agreed to keep in touch.
We learn about poverty in Haiti
When Kilbride returned home from Florida, he attended a meeting where he was asked to suggest an elementary school that was interested in fund-raising to build a small school in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. He called Mary and Jacquie, and they arranged for him to make a presentation at their next school advisory council meeting.
Between committee reports, Jacquie introduced Kilbride. She told us that he is a retired school teacher and listed off his volunteer efforts. Along with his work at Free the Children, he organizes shipments of medical supplies to developing countries and takes high school and university students to Kingston, Jamaica, for a few weeks each year to work with the poor: people living in the city's garbage dump, lepers and orphans.
Kilbride spoke quietly about the children and the living conditions he has seen in some developing countries. We shifted in our seats as he gave us the facts: one in five of the world's children between the ages of six and 11 do not attend school, and 150 million drop out of primary school before having completed four years of education. In Nicaragua, 20 per cent of children between the ages of six and nine work instead of going to school.
Page 1 of 3 - Read page two to find out how different grades can raise money
In Haiti, which Kilbride calls "the basket case of the Western Hemisphere," many villages do not have schools; instead, classes are held in shelters or under trees – a big problem when it rains. It all sounds overwhelming. Then Kilbride told us that a school could be built in Haiti for about $6,000. One by one, we got fired up, because we all started to think, Hey, we can do this. "Each of us can change the world," he said, "little by little, one person at a time."
Craig Kielburger comes to all saints
Remember Craig Kielburger? He's the 12-year-old boy (now 18) who founded Free the Children in 1995 to end labour exploitation of children around the world. Luis Garcia, a filmmaker, is making a documentary on the organization and asked if Craig could be filmed speaking to the 600 kids at our school.
Young, smart and, most importantly, a terrific speaker, Craig is someone a lot of kids can relate to. He spoke passionately of the children he has met: kids who play soccer with plastic bottles because they have no balls, and of how when he gave one of the boys a soccer ball, the boy stripped the shirt off his back and handed it to Craig to show his appreciation. He described the typical day of an eight-year-old girl in India whose job it is to separate the plungers from the syringes of used needles – without any gloves or shoes on her feet. The kids sat in awe, many of them shocked at the stories but wanting to reach out and do something. "Don't let anyone tell you that you're too young," Craig concludes. "You're not too young. Everyone can do something." At the Q&A session afterward, seven-year-old Michele walked up to the microphone and asked, "What can I do?"
From freezie sales to skipathons
Throughout the school, each classroom held a meeting to decide what their unique fund-raising effort would be. Posters went up, raffles were organized and parents were enlisted to bake treats for the sales. Here is what the kids raised.
Grade 1 Popcorn Sale $208
Grade 2 Skipathon $700
Grades 3 and 4 Raffle $557
Grades 3 and 4 Toy Sale $411
Grade 5 Freezie Sale $1,140
Grade 5 French-Immersion Play $98
Grade 6 Chips and Chocolate Sale $410
Grades 7 and 8 Bake Sale and Dance $1,318
Grade 9 Student Donation $120
French classes Penny Drive $468
At the end of the school year, Marc Kielburger, Craig's brother and executive director of Free the Children, accepted a cheque for $5,430 from All Saints students, enough to build a school in Haiti. (Depending on the location and the type of school constructed, costs range from $3,500 to $15,000.)
Kids don't have all the answers, but they have a lot to share.
"In 30 years of teaching, I've never seen anything quite like this." That's what Jon Austin, the principal of All Saints at the time, said after the funds were raised. "It was great because the kids took ownership," he says. They decided what they were going to do and they did it."
Page 2 of 3 - Check out page three to read about building a school in Haiti
Jon was inspired to donate the funds raised from school staff and the board for his retirement party to the school-building campaign instead. When he said goodbye to a lifetime of teaching, he presented Free the Children with a cheque for $2,500 for a new school to be built in Guatemala.
A school is built
In partnership with the Little Brothers of the Incarnation in Haiti, a two-room school, l'École Tous Saints, opened its doors last April in Pandiassou, Haiti, in the Central Plateau Department, one of the poorest parts of the country. Approximately 160 students from grades 1 through 4 attend (80 each morning from 7 a.m. to noon and the rest in the afternoon from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.). Meanwhile, back at All Saints in Toronto, students are busy filling backpacks with school supplies such as paper, pencils and erasers to send to the new students at l'École Tous Saints.
Today, everyone in the All Saints school community – students, parents and teachers – knows how to make a difference in our world. We're doing it little by little, one person at a time.
A thread of an idea
Founded in 1995, the Free the Children organization has grown into an international network of kids in more than 20 countries committed to helping other children.
Craig Kielburger first had the idea of building schools in underprivileged countries when he went to India six years ago. "Kids were marching through the streets chanting, ‘We want an education,' protesting against the rulers and putting their lives at risk," says Craig. "In a small way, here was an opportunity to try to break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty."
To date, the organization has built more than 400 schools through partnering, providing a primary education to more than 10,000 children in developing countries, and many more are in the planning stages. "Elementary schools are a great place to start," says Craig. "Kids in grades 6, 7 and 8 don't have all the answers, but they have a lot to share: time, energy, enthusiasm and a passion to get involved."
After a sister school is built, the supporting school often stays involved, sending backpacks filled with school supplies for the kids. Sometimes the students correspond and exchange artwork. "It lets kids see beyond the walls of the classroom," says Craig.
Last year, after Craig appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," there was a ground swell of support from kids who watched the show. "The day after the show aired, we received 5,000 e-mails from kids, all with the same message: ‘I want to help,'" says John Gaither, a former school principal and coordinator of the Building Schools program for Free the Children in Toronto.
As coordinator, Gaither analyses the school-building project proposals that come in from all over the world. Free the Children has accepted proposals to build primary schools in Chiapas, Mexico; Guatemala; the Dominican Republic; and Khartoum, Sudan. It is currently looking at other proposals in rural areas of Africa, Latin America and Asia. "I think it's the ultimate irony after leading children for so many years that I'm learning so much from them now," says Gaither.
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