What I learned as a kid who loved the WE Charity

How my experience with the WE Charity shapes my understanding of its recent controversy

Lauren reflects on how the charity impacted her life.
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As I scrolled through the news headlines back in July, “WE Charity Scandal” caught my eye for a moment, but not enough to entice me to click and read the article. Pandemic predictions, historic civil rights movements, and university updates had all of my attention.   

As weeks went on, the WE scandal headlines became harder to ignore. I wasn’t eager to read them for two main reasons: I assumed the headlines were trying to create a spectacle in the name of opposition politics, and I didn’t want to learn that the beloved foundation which significantly defined my childhood was under fire.

But now that I’ve read the reports, listened to podcasts, and watched the House coverage, I understand that the WE Charity Foundation controversy is a legitimate major political scandal. If the Ethics Commissioner’s investigation confirms the violation of the Federal Conflict of Interest Act, it could result in damning consequences for the Liberal government and WE organization.

While these events are significant news to all Canadians, I can’t help but think about how the reverberations of this scandal feel particularly personal to the thousands of young people who grew up with WE.

I wasn’t a part of the WE administration—I never participated in any of their expensive voluntourism trips, nor had anything to do with the top of this mega-charity—but the WE brand has been an important part of my life since the fourth grade.

Like most kids, my place in the WE organization was minuscule. I was one in the sea of more than 200,000 kids who wanted to change the world.

Much like snow days, Girl Guides, and Disney’s Family channel, my childhood memories of the WE charity are warmly nostalgic and exciting. When I think of WE, I think of my elementary and high school’s lunchtime club meetings filled with kids who wanted to get busy learning about global issues and work toward a greater good. There were no WE officials there with us, but the WE brand held a status of accessible excellence.

Thanks to the effort and passion my public school teachers put into organizing our WE charity club meetings, the personal growth I gained while loving WE was significant. Participating in the WE programming throughout my elementary and high school career shaped my personal values, strengths, and life path.

I remember the recess in 2008 when my teacher screened Free the Children’s first documentary concerning children’s human rights issues. I learned for the first time that the world wasn’t merely an extension of my hometown. This was the first defining moment in my life that WE prompted.  

From there, I was happily engaged in multiple recesses a week learning about global issues and organizing initiatives so our tiny public school of 90 kids could impact the world.

From concert fundraisers for tsunami victims, writing essays to win grants for a school-wide composting program, and washing all of our school’s recycling waste by hand to braiding and selling dozens of bracelets to buy vaccines for villages across the world, as well as collecting hundreds of non-perishable food items at Halloween, my elementary school peers and I bonded over our passions for global citizenship and busy bee mentalities.

Into high school, our WE club's programming provided the ultimate platform for me to put my creative leadership skills into practice. I thrived when thinking critically with my classmates to try achieving the most community impact with each new fundraising event.

I’d excitedly meet up with friends at breaks and after school to brainstorm how we could positively impact our local community while helping the global community. I didn’t want to just complete the recommended fundraisers outlined by WE, I wanted to achieve true community activism. 

My fondest memories of high school are our humble WE charity fundraising events which tried to get as many kids involved and excited about our projects as possible.

One of the most fun days of my life was when I organized a crew of 15 kids from all walks of life to band together in raising money for WE schools by blending and selling fresh fruit smoothies outside of our cafeteria. I was proud that I was able to think outside of the box—not only raising money for a global cause, but also providing accessible healthy lunch options to my peers.

The valuable hands-on skills I gained while participating in our WE charity club undoubtedly lead to me finding pieces of myself. WE clubs were the outlets that allowed me to learn what I was capable of as a student leader.

While I could start to see later on in high school that the WE charity and its WE Day weren’t perfect, I have always appreciated their uniquely marvellous impact on my generation. The messaging I took away from each WE Day I attended was that I wasn’t alone in wanting to create a better world. I recognized it was crucial that each WE Day event was secular and free of cost.

The last WE Day I attended in my senior year of high school focused heavily on human rights issues within Canada. I appreciated that Indigenous people’s voices and culture lead the stage for hours; it was an example of how Canadians’ approaches to philanthropy were evolving.

Once I graduated high school, I didn’t continue to be a part of a WE charity club, but I continued to carry the principles I learned. I’ve continued to value being an active citizen in my communities and listening to diverse voices on global issues.

While I recognize—now more than ever—that above its messaging, WE is a brand, it still disgusts me to hear its name being tossed out of politicians’ mouths in debate. The brand’s name has a meaningful place not only in the lives of thousands of young Canadians, but also in the lives of the vulnerable people the charity supported across the world.

Reading and watching the scandal unfold, I feel the reporters writing headlines and politicians arguing on both sides of the House don’t understand how people like me have been impacted by the charity—they didn’t grow up with WE.

The part of me that feels that warm nostalgia for WE is disappointed in the controversy it’s embroiled in, but the part of me that has grown-up in this scandal-driven society is unsurprised.

I think it’s okay for the kids who loved WE to feel a bit disappointed and manipulated by the adults at the top. Witnessing the scandal unfold and processing our thoughts is important in allowing us to decide how our championed generation is going to do better.

WE Day has been cancelled for the foreseeable future, but we carry on. I find that same spirit of exhilarating passion for a better world in car ride conversations, grassroots Instagram pages, and profound classroom discourse.  

My childhood memories aren’t soured, because it never really was about the WE brand. The stages and lights never changed the world—it was my devoted teachers and passionate peers who taught me what citizenship meant. It was my love for community that allowed me to find myself.

Even without a WE Day ticket, I will continue to be the change I wish to see in the world.

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