Kielburger’s crusade to Free the Children

Advocate talks about his endeavours to improve the lives of children in developing countries, and why he formed his organization when he was 12

Craig Kielburger talks with a child as part of his work with Free The Children.
Craig Kielburger talks with a child as part of his work with Free The Children.
Since 1995, Free The Children has built 450 primary schools like this one in Sierra Leone.
Since 1995, Free The Children has built 450 primary schools like this one in Sierra Leone.

Flipping through a newspaper in search of the comics, Craig Kielburger came across the story
of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old carpet-weaver who was murdered for speaking out against child labour.

After learning about the 250,000 child-labourers throughout the world, Kielburger gathered a group
of his classmates to do something about the problem.

Since 1995, the group of 12-year-olds has grown into an international organization—Free the Children—that has built 450 primary schools in more than 40 countries in an attempt to give every child the opportunity to get an education.

“We wanted to start small, and we never actually set out to found an organization, but rather to build one school,” Kielburger said from California in an e-mail interview with the Journal.

Now 23, Kielburger was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Kielburger, along with 11 of his Grade 7 classmates, wrote letters and petitions to governments and organizations to have their voices heard. He said his parents were a crucial part of the group’s early success.

“My parents provided the meeting space in their home, pizza and endless support and encouragement for what Free The Children wanted to achieve.” Kielburger will speak at the Queen’s Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship (QACE ) Conference tomorrow at 2 p.m. at Grant Hall. Admission is free.

Several months after forming the group, Kielburger traveled to India and Thailand and witnessed first-hand the plight of children his age in developing countries. “Meeting and speaking to children who have been victims of child labour and war changed everything for me,” he said. When he came back, he and his friends spoke to other classes at their school, trying to raise awareness about their cause.
“It was amazing how many people did not know about child labour or about what kids in other parts of the world go through every day,” he said. “I didn’t even know that slavery still existed, naively thinking that Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery many years ago.” He said that after speaking to the first few classes, the organization’s goals expanded to include educating their peers about the lives of children around the world. The new organization was funded by garage sales and other fundraising drives Kielburger and his fellow members held in their own communities.

Today, kids of all ages come together to form Youth in Action groups under the umbrella of Free the Children. There are over 700 Youth in Action groups worldwide, as close as Canada and as far away as Japan and Nepal. They range in size from five to 500 people and are made up of students from a variety of backgrounds. Despite the seemingly grand scale of their projects today, most of the organization’s development and fundraising still begins at this community level.

Kielburger said 65 per cent of Free The Children’s funding still comes from these Youth in Action groups. From building their first school in Nicaragua to providing daily education for 40,000 children,
Free The Children has expanded its mandate to include four specific areas of development: school building, alternate income, health care and clean water, and peace building. Kielburger said the organization targets all the things that prevent children from getting an education.

“Expanding our programs creates not only a place for children to go to school, but ensures that with additional support that they can go to school … For example, instead of walking five kilometres a day to obtain fresh water, wells have been placed within the community, freeing children from this duty.”

Communications Director Amy Erin Schlein said a lack of marketable skills for women has also had a large impact on their children’s ability to attend school. “Most women have never had the role of being financial provider for their families,” she said. After the tsunami in Sri Lanka destroyed a large portion of the coastline as well as most of the villagers’ fishing equipment, many families were left without a source of income. Chief Operations Director, Dalal Al-waheidi said the alternate income program was crucial forthe reconstruction. “A lot of NGOs, after the Tsunami, poured a lot of emergency aid but we’re giving empoweringaid,” she said. In the Ampara District of Sri Lanka, Free The Children built
a vocational training centre to teach adults skills—from sewing to computer programming—to give families new ways to support themselves. Al-waheidi described their approach to sustainability
as “holistic.”

Al-waheidi said they look not just at each aspect of the problem but at the root of it.

“It’s holistic in that we don’t just build schools, we furnish schools, we provide teacher training and
wages, we provide health care and water,” she said. This approach is especially important in countries like Sierra Leone where children are not only deprived of education, but have also survived 11 years of civil war. The health care provided includes mental health and counseling for children who have
been traumatized by war. “In a school you have a person who has been affected by war and a person who has been the perpetrator of war in the sameroom, sitting together,” she said. Free the Children projects are currently in the works in Kenya, Sri Lanka, China and Sierra Leone. Alwaheidi said each location has its own specific needs and challengesand requires extensive research before any construction begins. “Ultimately it’s what the community wants because the community knows best,”

Al-waheidi said. In addition to supporting Youth in Action groups all over the globe, Free the Children also takes youth on international trips to help build schools and teach children.

Kelly Peters, a fourth-year McMaster Arts and Science student, went to build schools in Kenya after her first year of university. She said she was so affected by it she decided to go again. “To come back and say you weren’t changed would be a complete lie,” she said.

Peters said she found out about the trip from a speaker in class about Third World development and decided she wanted to go.

“It seemed really amazing and we’d been learning about these issues in class.”

Peters said the group divided its time between building schools and teaching.

Peters taught the equivalent of Grade 6 on her first trip and the equivalent of Grade 1 as well as high school-aged children on her second trip. She said the experience really opened her eyes to the ways in which she could help other people and encourages others to get involved.

“For university students it doesn’t have to be a trip to Kenya … but you can get involved in your school and just find the issues that are there. “Don’t shy away from issues that are scary, just dive right in
and find out how much you can change.”

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