Jordan Flaherty was among the Farmington High School students who raised $10,000 last year to build a school — and buy goats — for a village in Kenya.
Tiffany Bertek was part of a group from Alexandria Area High School that helped organize a coat drive for local students, sent Christmas toys to needy children, and raised funds to support a “We Scare Hunger” campaign.
They were among 18,000 enthusiastic students who jammed the Xcel Energy Center Tuesday for what has become an annual day of celebrating service learning and giving, called We Day.
With a lineup of celebrity speakers and performers, it launched another year of giving for the roughly 187,000 Minnesota students now involved in the campaign.
“It’s a great opportunity to join everyone who has helped their communities,” said Bertek, “and it motivates me to be like everyone else.”
Minnesota marked its third We Day celebration with impressive statistics and words of praise from its Canadian organizers and Minnesota educators.
“We started with about 200 schools here, we now have about 560,” said Craig Kielburger, co-founder of Free The Children, the Canadian nonprofit that organizes We Day in Canada and four U.S. states.
The number of students in service learning projects jumped from about 64,600 to 197,000, he said. The dollars raised jumped from $378,000 to $836,000.
“And what started in Minnesota is growing across America,” Kielburger said.
Minnesota was one of two states that launched the first U.S. We Days in 2013. This year, Gov. Mark Dayton kicked off the fun by proclaiming Tuesday “We Day Minnesota.”
The day featured motivational speeches, including one from Chelsea Clinton, music from Grammy award winners Darren Criss and Ciara, and words of encouragement from 20 national speakers.
Many of those speakers talked about overcoming their own challenges, achieving success and giving back. Spencer West, a frequent guest on the We Day stage, has no legs and was told by doctors he would never sit, never walk. But he’s become a motivational speaker, drives a car and even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
Academy award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, said her parents were encouraged to send her away to a special school but instead kept her home and helped her pursue her dream of becoming an actress in a hearing world.
Actor Henry Winkler, best known as “The Fonz” from the 1970s and ’80s TV series “Happy Days,” said he had such severe dyslexia that he didn’t read a novel until he was 31.
“I am a producer, a director, an actor, and I’ve written 31 novels for children — and I am in the bottom 3 percent academically in America,” Winkler told the crowd. Young people grappling with any challenges should never forget their “greatness,” he said. “Their destiny is waiting in their soul. Their job is to figure it out and give it to the world.”
Mae Jemison, the first black woman U.S. astronaut, brought the discussion to new heights.
“We’re made from the same stuff as the center of stars,” she told the crowd. The challenge now is to figure out how to help build a bright future.
We Day was started in Canada in 2007 by Free The Children. Its first Minnesota event was heavy on teen entertainment and celebrities. Tuesday’s event featured plenty of celebrities but focused more on education and motivation.
The blitz of activity is coordinated out of an office in Minneapolis that helps schools that want to join the We Day campaign, said Dean Phillips, co-chair of We Day Minnesota.
The event is funded by foundations and corporate sponsors, said Phillips, co-chair of the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation.
Kielburger has said that Minnesota was chosen as one of the first U.S. test sites because of its strong tradition of service learning. For example, Champlin Park High School organized Thanksgiving food drives long before We Day, but We Day projects “added a global perspective,” said Jane Hanson, its service learning coordinator.
“That pulled some different students,” she said.
Holly Clark, service coordinator at Northdale Middle School in Coon Rapids, said students there are raising money for a school in India and also for a local food shelf. We Day encouraged children to pursue service projects based on their own passions rather than relying on a school-run project.
“They are good about providing lesson plans and statistics so you can teach students about the issue while they work,” Clark said. “And they’re good about sending outreach speakers who are exciting, so it appeals to a broader audience.”
Educators’ embrace of this We Day is due in part to Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who embraced the concept from the start. She sent notes to Minnesota school superintendents encouraging them to participate, she said.
On Tuesday, she was on stage thanking the students for their work. “Sometimes children need just one experience to change their lives,” she said. “This day could be it.”