Last Thursday night, we bought about one-thirtieth of a school.
That’s an astonishing statement for anyone who’s ever put in the hundreds of volunteer hours that it takes to get a new school built or an older one renovated—or to prevent a perfectly good school from being closed—in North America. The last time I checked, a few years ago now, an elementary school in Ottawa cost C$10-12 million, and the meter didn’t start until most of the political hurdles had been cleared.
But that’s not the story in places like Sri Lanka or Sierra Leone, China or Kenya, where the Canadian charity Free the Children has built 500 schools that now serve 50,000 children. A couple of months ago, Rachel’s best friend Hannah Wiens and two of her friends, Cara Schacter and Maddie Wright, launched a Sweet Sixteen project to raise $8,500 for a school in Sri Lanka. On March 5, they hosted a silent auction that was nearly flawless in its logistics, flat-out inspiring in its purpose.
Karen and Rachel both commented that Hannah could probably lay claim to a future career as a special event planner. Rachel was exhausted by the time she got home from a four-hour shift on the sign-up desk, but got to be a part of an event that raised more than $8,000 in one evening.
Did I mention that Hannah is still about six weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday?
“Proud parent?? Yes, so proud,” wrote Hannah’s mum, Simone. “Never underestimate the power of teenagers.”
This was a neighbourhood soirée in the true Ottawa tradition: the names on the bid forms and the faces in the crowd included a Member of Parliament, a Senator (the legislative kind, not a hockey player), and the long-ago founder of a local rock music station.
But the highlight was the talk by Marieke Bergman, Free The Children’s international youth coordinator. She told the story of Craig Kielburger, who co-founded the organization in 1995 at the age of 12 after running across a news story on child labour. The way Kielburger tells it, he was looking for the comic section in his local paper when he read that Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old from Pakistan, had been shot to death for leading protests against child slavery in the carpet trade, from which he had escaped at age 10.
Fourteen years later, Free The Children talks to more than 200,000 youth per year, and its adopt-a-village program supports front-line programming in education, health, income generation, and water and sanitation.
It’s the kind of day in, day out capacity-building that makes a strong civil society possible, laying the foundation for an industry like ours that relies so heavily on knowledge, learning, and effective interaction. In the words of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, quoted on the Free The Children site, “Education is peace building by another name.” On very good days, we can be proud to be a part of a profession that approaches the standard that this marvellous organization seems to set every day.
Noting that Free The Children began with Kielburger and a dozen friends meeting over pizza and pop, Bergman hammered away at the message that anyone can make the kind of difference that Hannah, Cara, and Maddie are trying to achieve with their fundraising project. When bidding began, I’d like to think we weren’t the only ones who deliberately spent a bit more than we intended.
Because, after all…how often do you get a chance to buy one-thirtieth of a school? (You can do some buying of your own by clicking here.)