“The power of WE! It’s the power of each and every one of YOU.” These energizing words ricochet throughout stadiums filled with thousands of youth who gather at Free the Children's We Day celebrations held each year across Canada, from Halifax all the way to Vancouver. We Day co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger are committed to spreading that simple yet inspiring message, and Canadian Living has been with them every step of the way.
Every Canadian youth has the power to effect change and improve the world we live in. One act at a time. That's all it takes.
Canadian Living has proudly sponsored the Me to We Awards for the last nine years, casting the spotlight on incredible Canadians who embody the spirit of “Me to We”.
Here are some of our favourite We Day highlights and your opportunity to celebrate these year’s six incredible Canadian Living Me to We Award winners.
We’ve all had that feeling: passing a homeless person on the street or seeing a malnourished African child on TV and wanting to help, wanting to take action of some kind. And many of us do. We volunteer at shelters, give to charity and donate our time, money and energy to give back in some way.
But the winners of this year’s Me to We Awards (which Canadian Living has coproduced since 2005) have taken the idea of helping others to a whole new level – the leadership level, the trailblazing level. (Each winner receives $5,000 which they get to donate to a charity of their own choice.) What prompts a child, teenager, young adult or mother to become a dervish of time and energy, a guru of giving back? To use the terminology of Hollywood, there’s usually an “inciting incident” that galvanizes a person into becoming an “active protagonist” for social change. We asked each of our winners what that incident was.
By David Eddie
I have to admit, the first time I read about Sarah Lewis (in the nomination application for the award), I got choked up and teary eyed. I’m normally a tough guy with a heart of stone. But she just sounds (as I told her mother on the phone, parent to parent) so damn cute. And (as I also told her mother) I don’t mean to patronize – far from it. I use the word in the profoundest possible sense, the way my wife uses it, to mean “soulful, decent, trying hard.” Good, basically.
For Sarah, the “inciting incident” came when she was seven (the Windsor, Ont., student is now 12), tagging along with her older brother, who was delivering sleeping bags to a homeless shelter. She asked a man named Joe if there was anything else he needed, and he said, simply, “socks.” So Sarah snapped into action. She started a campaign at school called Socks Warm Your Heart and collected socks in a basket. She asked for socks in lieu of presents at Christmas. She asked for socks in lieu of presents for her birthday. She started hitting up friends and neighbours for – I hope you’re not expecting any surprises here – socks.
She also held garage sales, sold lemonade, collected bottles, and saved tooth fairy and Canadian Tire money to raise funds for the shelter. So far she has collected thousands of socks and thousands of dollars, as well as hats, mitts, blankets and backpacks. “[Homeless people] walk around a lot. And it’s important that they keep their heads and hands and feet warm,” she says. She delivers the goods in person and says the reaction is very gratifying. “One woman put on a pair of socks and said, ‘Oh, I’m in heaven,’” she says. Another man said the socks were a big boost to his self-esteem, because fresh socks meant he “wouldn’t smell and people wouldn’t stare.”
These drop-offs were educational for her too, she says. “You can’t judge a book by its cover. These people are nice, kind – just like us. They just need a little extra help.”
As long as Sarah is around, you can bet they’re going to get it too. Help, hats, mitts, cash and (if you don’t know what’s coming, here’s a hint: they go on your feet) socks.
For 16-year-old lola Flomen, who describes her heroes as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, the “inciting incident” was not exactly what you’d expect: an ear infection.
She was at home sick. “I was lying in bed, flipping through the channels, looking for cartoons,” she says, when she came across an ad for a charitable organization, “with those images of destitute families.” It hit her with epiphanic force: The Montreal youth needed to do something to help those less fortunate – and so she began performing random acts of kindness. At age seven, she sponsored a child in Malawi. At eight, she made “welcome boxes” for children at a battered women’s home. She cut off a foot of her hair for an organization called Locks of Love, which provides hairpieces to disadvantaged children with long-term illnesses. She became a Big Sister for a time. I’m exhausted just listing the things she did before her bat mitzvah at age 13 (at which she asked for donations to the Jewish General Hospital in lieu of gifts, raising $35,000). Her mother says she can’t pass a homeless person on the street without giving a kind word, some pocket change or a piece of pizza.
“It’s all about doing the mitzvah,” Lola says. “No act of kindness is too small, even if it’s just helping an old lady across the street.” Her inspiration to take her compassionate activities to an even higher level came from a person some might perceive as an unlikely source: Conrad Black. “I met him at a party,” she says. “He said to me: ‘You can’t save people one at a time. It’s better to do it in batches.’”
Those words struck a chord with Lola, and she decided to take it up a notch: battling HIV, poverty and racism in South Africa; doing volunteer work in Costa Rica; helping special needs kids in Montreal; and organizing garage sales to raise funds for a local hospital. This past summer, she headed off to Thailand and then to Kenya with Me to We. Oh, and did I mention that earlier this year she travelled to the Dominican Republic to help establish a water sanitation program? (I went to the Dominican Republic a couple of years ago to help build a school from the ground up.) But Lola doesn’t see her accomplishments as unusual.
“It’s a lifestyle for me, a hobby,” she says. “Some people like to horseback ride; I like to help people.” And not just one at a time, either.
I'm not sure Heather Ferretti fits into my “inciting incident” model. If there was any particular event that galvanized her into action, it was probably the year she spent overseas travelling through Asia, spending much of her time in the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam. Along with her husband, a contractor, she volunteered at a school and an orphanage, doing building projects in flip-flops with no power tools.
She was saddened by what she saw there: kids with no school to go to and young women on the streets at night. “I discovered that poverty is complex, and I felt powerless to help,” says the teacher from Ontario’s Niagara Region. Her first thought was to share her feelings with her students to inspire them to step up and get involved.
The truth is, Heather Ferretti herself is probably the inciting incident. You know how people who have achieved great things often say, “It all began with one teacher who inspired me”? Heather is that teacher. In her first year of teaching, she started a Me to We club for students, and over the years they have collected money for local food banks, sung Christmas carols, raised money to buy a stable of animals in India, raised money for an orphanage in Tanzania and a school in Kenya, and started an annual spring carnival to raise money for children in need. Her kids have sold cupcakes, bracelets and necklaces. They have brought in loose change for the cause. One kid gave her a quarter, saying, “I was thinking it could buy a pencil.”
Colleagues use terms like “infectious enthusiasm” and “natural leader” to describe her. And infectious her enthusiasm must be. If it can persuade a kindergarten kid to give a quarter for a pencil, you just know that in 2032, when that kid is installing a well in the sub-Saharan desert and someone asks, “Was there any particular inciting incident that set you on this path?” that kid is going to squint against the equatorial sun and say: “Well, there was this one teacher named Heather Ferretti....”
For Carol Todd, the “inciting incident” was horrific and catastrophic. It was the worst thing that could happen to a parent: the suicide of her daughter.
The details of 15-year-old Amanda Todd’s tragic story are well-known. At age 12, the Coquitlam, B.C., teen was convinced by a flattering Facebook “friend” to bare her breasts to a webcam – an action that led to her being harassed, stalked, cyber-bullied and beaten up. She was mocked for one suicide attempt (drinking bleach) and called a psycho after spending time in a mental health institution. She documented her torments in a series of flash cards in a YouTube video that went viral before she ended her young life last October. During her long ordeal, she and her mother moved several times, trying to escape. But there was no escape. Her stalker would track her down, worm his way into her new circle of online friends, and the nightmare would begin all over again.
It wasn’t a story Carol wanted to tell – at first. She didn’t want her daughter to be defined by how she died. “She was actually a very kind and caring person who loved to help others,” says Carol. When news of Amanda’s suicide broke, Carol was bombarded by requests for interviews from media from around the globe, but she turned most of them down. As time went on, though, she decided the story could help others. “Amanda made that video because she wanted to help other kids. I want to tell my story to help other parents.”
So she created the Amanda Todd Legacy Fund to raise money for antibullying and mental-health initiatives, and she now blogs and speaks to groups about her experiences. “I don’t know if we can stop bullying, but we can work together to raise awareness, among parents, potential victims – and the bullies themselves,” she says. “Bullies always say, ‘I was just joking.’” But it’s obviously no joke, as Amanda’s fate amply demonstrates. Carol says if she can help one person escape that terrible consequence, it will have been worth it. And she knows she’s already helped many. But she says she doesn’t consider herself a crusader or activist. So how does she describe herself? “As a mother,” she says. “I’m just a mother.”
In Kennedy Baker’s case, the “inciting incident” was actually a barrage of traumatic events that befell her and rocked her sense of the world as a safe and positive place.
One day she was a happy, popular high-school student, one of the “cool kids.” Her future was bright. But then she found lumps in both her breasts, learned her mother had been sexually assaulted, was told that her estranged father had died and, in a bizarre random incident, had a bullet graze her ankle (a car pulled over on the street and a man shot at her while she was out running one night).
Suddenly, things didn’t seem so safe and secure in Kennedy’s world after all. She went into free fall: She became anxious about everything; suffered physi cally, emotionally and mentally; and was eventually hospitalized (weighing just over 90 pounds at five-foot-eight) and diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But that was just the beginning of her ordeal. After three months of healing and getting healthier in the hospital, Kennedy returned to school, thinking she would take up where she left off with her friends. But her friends had moved on. She was ostracized, ate lunch alone every day, was the target of bullying and became “that crazy mental girl.” It all led to her feeling “isolated and worthless,” she says.
This time, though, she decided to push back against callousness and cruelty, and help those who, like her, felt judged and excluded. She started volunteering at a local soup kitchen called The 7-10 Club.
“I started to notice how many people were not all that different from me,” Kennedy says. We can call it a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God epiphany – except that she had been there. She started to realize there were problems requiring attention right in her own backyard. “You always see commercials about India or other depressed areas,” she says. “But so many people in Nanaimo, B.C., are on social assistance. Maybe before we help other countries, we should help out people in our own country.”
Kennedy started humbly, with bagels and potatoes. She formed a school program to help hungry students, personally serving about 50 bagels a day so they could concentrate on their studies and not be distracted by empty stomachs. From there, she created STAND (Stand Up, Stand Together, Stand Strong), a nonprofit organization aimed at combatting poverty where it hits hardest: the food supply. Earlier this year, she organized a benefit concert called Songs for Spuds; proceeds went toward The Potato Project, in which homeless people were fed chili and baked potatoes with all the trimmings (chives, bacon bits, cheese and sour cream – yum!), and were entertained and given a warm, dry place to eat.
As her grandfather says, these simple acts are the beginning of a chain reaction. And you can bet, if you were hungry on that day, chili and a baked potato with all the trimmings really hit the spot.
From a very young age Jasmine Kassam had a strong sense of social justice. Her family always encouraged her to do charity work and to give back to the community.
So Jasmine has always been an active volunteer. She worked as a crowd pumper at charity events, volunteered at a Calgary homeless shelter making sandwiches, and raised money and collected nonperishable food through a program called Halloween for Hunger. She has also worked with youth groups in Calgary and is involved in Children’s Birthday Miracles, an organization founded by her younger sister that holds monthly birthday parties at a family shelter.
But it was a trip to Ecuador in 2011 that, she says, really brought home the importance of helping people in a hands-on fashion. It’s one thing to raise money, she realized, but in Ecuador, she helped build two schools in dirt-poor areas. Working beside sevenand eight-year-olds to build their own future school gave her a new sense of reality and showed her the importance of this type of work.
“These kids cared so much about getting an education that they built a school with their bare hands, some in bare feet,” she says. “It was really inspiring. You knew that when that school was built, they would really appreciate the education they would get.” And it’s true. It’s hard to imagine a kid slacking off in a classroom they helped build.
Jasmine has been active in Free the Children since she was 14. Now she is the president of Free the Children at the University of Western Ontario, a club with 450 members.
Jasmine doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do in the future, but it’s a safe bet that, with her mix of crowd-pumping enthusiasm, leadership and compassion, she’ll go on to great things.