The atmosphere was beyond electric: 18,000 cheering teenagers, and it wasn't for a rock star, a pro athlete or even a school cancellation. This remarkable group of students gathered in St. Paul, Minn., for We Day in early October to be recognized for their stellar record of volunteering. And this was only one of more than a dozen such gatherings across North America.
We Day is described as a celebration of the power of young Americans to create positive and lasting change, not only in their communities and around the world, but within themselves.
No one could attend without an invitation. Participants had to earn their spots, and were rewarded with inspirational stories and star-studded performances. To qualify, each attendee had to have engaged in one international and one local cause. And they took home plenty of ideas for new projects.
Madeline Titus, a junior from St. Cloud, Minn., has attended several We Days. Her enthusiasm is evident. She said, "It's hard to describe the day. I've never experienced anything like it. It's like 18,000 teenagers screaming, not for Justin Bieber, but for something that actually matters. It's one of those times you get goosebumps all over your arms." Madeline was featured in a local magazine for her part in the creation of an anti-bullying workshop and her volunteer work at a nursing home.
We Day was started in Canada in 2007 by a non-profit, Free the Children. That organization was founded in 1995 by Craig and Marc Kielburger and 10 fellow seventh-graders who were inspired by the story of a 12-year-old Pakistani child slave. Their mission was to free children overseas from exploitation and poverty.
They were not deterred from achieving their goal, even when the international charities they contacted could offer them no advice on how young people could get involved. They were determined to prove that kids could make a difference. They decided to start by encouraging kids to take action on issues that mattered to them. The movement now includes 2.3 million energetic young people who want to make a difference at home and around the world.
Their newest initiative is a year of action dubbed "We Act," a free program designed to inspire and enhance a school's service learning initiatives. Free the Children offers lesson plans, campaign kits, online resources and mentorship to students and teachers. Participation in these programs may also earn them a ticket into We Day.
"Just as 'Glee' made singing cool in school, the We Act program and its student leaders promise to make philanthropy cool and weave it into the DNA of high school culture," said Dean Phillips, co-chair of We Day Minnesota.
Hutton Phillips, Dean's sister and We Day Minnesota co-chair, added, "With We Day, We Act and programs like it, our generation is so impacted -- we are inspired to volunteer, vote, give -- we are inspired to live 'me' to 'we.'"
A major initiative in helping children transform their lives is a focus on education. Free the Children believes that education allows learners to become leaders, and gain the tools to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. The goal is to build 200 schools in developing communities around the world. Visit their website, freethechildren.com, to learn more about these programs.
My good friend Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former CEO and chairman of the worldwide conglomerate Carlson Inc., spoke at the event, and hasn't stopped gushing about the enthusiasm and commitment she witnessed. Marilyn was a shining example as a speaker, given her storied record of volunteerism and community and global involvement. She shared these words: "This is my message to both you girls and you guys -- you can make your dreams come true, and I'll give you one secret to making that happen. Write down your goals and work every day to achieve them, and when you meet one goal, check it off and write a new one. Believe in yourself and never stop believing in yourself. We believe in you, and that's why we are all here.
"Our company and our family foundation have a credo and it goes like this:
"Whatever you do, do with integrity.
"Wherever you go, go as a leader.
"Whomever you serve, serve with caring.
"Whenever you dream, dream with your all and never, ever give up!"
Mackay's Moral: These students know how to take care of business "from me to we."