In Waconia, the girls’ high school volleyball team is raising $10,000 to build a well and school in Haiti, as well as participating in local volunteer projects.
In St. Cloud, students raised money for an international clean-water project and collected 2,600 pounds of food for food shelves. In Minnetonka, middle-schoolers held a day of silence to call attention to human rights abuses around the world.
They’re among tens of thousands of students in more than 500 Minnesota schools who have joined a new youth service program called We Act. In exchange for their good deeds, a lucky 18,000 will attend a rally next month called We Day that could be one of the most celebrity-packed events to hit the Twin Cities this year.
The lineup so far includes Martin Luther King III, singers Dessa, the Jonas Brothers and Carly Rae Jepsen, actress Mia Farrow, Minnesota leaders such as Gov. Mark Dayton, the Twin Cities’ mayors, and Minnesota Vikings players, among others. About 25 speakers will hit the stage at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center during the daylong event on Oct. 8.
“I’m so excited,” said Mulki Ali, 15, a St. Cloud Tech High School student who plans to attend. “This isn’t just something you can buy a ticket for. You have to earn it. And you get to be with thousands of people who want to make the world a better place.”
“We Day” is one of the most high-profile events in the youth service world. It was launched by the Canadian nonprofit Free the Children in 2007 and quickly evolved into a daylong celebration that mixes teen entertainment with social activists and inspiration from the likes of the Dalai Lama and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.
We Day has exploded into 13 events in three countries attended by 160,000 students. A sign of its popularity: It has 3.3 million “likes” on Facebook.
Minnesota is the second state to host a We Day; Washington was the first, with an event in Seattle in March. We Day co-founder Craig Kielburger said Minnesota was selected because of its national reputation for service learning and volunteerism, as well as the support of state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
Minnesota’s philanthropic community also quickly jumped on board, including the Phillips Family Foundation, Carlson Family Foundation, Otto Bremer Foundation and General Mills, both the company and foundation.
“I’ve been blown away,” said Kielburger. “There must be something in the water in Minnesota.”
Kielburger kicked off Minnesota’s We Act — and We Day — last February, with a mini-event featuring the Jonas Brothers, Mia Farrow and a wildly enthusiastic crowd. Since then, We Act has opened an office in St. Louis Park and hired outreach workers, and it’s working with Minnesota schools to implement the program.
More than 500 schools have signed on so far, said David Stillman, director of the Minnesota office. For schools with no service learning, it offers a blueprint on how to get started, he said. For schools with service projects, it offers new curriculum and materials to broaden their reach.
It also injects some serious motivation, with the prospect of attending We Day. Tickets for the October event are no longer available, said Stillman, but students can sign up online for some volunteer opportunities.
Since 2009, teens involved in We Act and We Day have raised more than $37 million for more than 1,000 local and global causes and volunteered 9.6 million hours, We Day officials said.
Jack Jablonski, the Benilde-St. Margaret student who suffered a spinal cord injury during a hockey game, is among the local speakers slated for the packed house at the Xcel Center. He said he learned about We Day even before it was launched in Minnesota, and was impressed with its work.
“I love how they reward people for helping others,” said Jablonski. “And I like that people volunteer locally and do something globally,” he said, referring to the volunteering criteria that is part of We Act.
Schools pitch in
Jennifer Day is a teacher and We Act coordinator for St. Cloud Tech High School, one of the earliest to get on the bandwagon. She said a student had heard Kielburger speak at a conference and was so inspired that she got some friends involved. Soon, St. Cloud Tech became a “We School.” Students now participate in “We Scare Hunger” — Halloween trick-or-treating for food-shelf contributions — and the “We Are Silent” project, an awareness campaign for human rights abuses. Students also do other volunteer work and fundraising.
“So often kids are told that everything you do in school is to prepare you for the future,” Day said. “Free the Children tells them they can make change right now.”
Kielburger and his brother Marc founded Free the Children, the We Day sponsor, a decade ago, to help children in developing countries overcome poverty.
Jim Lee, business teacher and head volleyball coach at Waconia High School, heard about Free the Children and We Day last year. He decided to check out one of the celebrations in Canada, and was amazed, he said. Educators from other U.S. schools were also having a look, he said.
That’s likely to happen in Minnesota, said Stillman, adding, “We will be used as a model for other states to come.”