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The gymnasium at Patrick Henry High School scored some celebrity players Wednesday, when teen heartthrobs the Jonas Brothers, actress Mia Farrow, Twin Cities mayors and other luminaries showed up to launch a new youth volunteer program before an enthusiastic crowd.
"How cool is it for Minnesota to be the first state to launch We Day?" Farrow said to the hundreds of cheering students packing the bleachers.
We Day is a popular stadium event in major cities across Canada every year. It's the culmination of yearlong student volunteer projects organized in hundreds of schools. The program, spearheaded by a Canadian nonprofit, has attracted a rock-star roster of speakers ranging from the Dalai Lama to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, to pop superstars Justin Bieber and Jennifer Hudson.
Minnesota and Washington will be the first U.S. states to launch the volunteer program. Organizers have been working with Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and several school districts. In the months ahead, schools across the state will be encouraged to use the tools provided by the unusual Canadian nonprofit that spearheads the events.
In October, thousands of Minnesota students will be invited to attend the state's first We Day celebration at Xcel Energy Center. Gorbachev and the Jonas Brothers are among those slated to take the stage.
"We are thrilled to bring We Day to Minnesota, and to provide young people with the platform to support them on their journey to change the world," said Mark Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, the Canadian nonprofit that hopes to spread its volunteer zeal across the nation.
How it started
Kielburger's younger brother Craig launched Free the Children in 1995, when he was 12 years old. A newspaper article about a 12-year-old boy in Pakistan who was murdered for speaking out against child labor sparked Craig's desire to take action.
Over the years, the nonprofit evolved from a couple of dozen students to an international charity with more than 1 million young people involved, according to staff. It helps provide clean water, sanitation, health care and food to impoverished people across the globe. Craig Kielburger has been featured on "60 Minutes," "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and more.
Mark Kielburger said the nonprofit chose Minnesota for its foray into the United States because of its national reputation for civic volunteerism, because they found a strong ally in Commissioner Cassellius, and because key philanthropic leaders stepped forward to sponsor the project. Those include the Phillips Family Foundation, Carlson Family Foundation, Otto Bremer Foundation and General Mills, both the company and foundation. All were present at the kickoff.
"I think this is a unique opportunity," said Barbara Carlson Gage, president and chairperson of the Carlson Family Foundation. "We've been working with schoolchildren a long time. This may be the secret sauce. This is an interesting mix of excitement, drama, show business -- with substance, training and action."
Cassellius said Free the Children approached her office last summer. After watching the emotional videos of Canadian We Days, and vetting the nonprofit, she said it seemed like a great match for state schools.
Under the program, schools will work with We Day staff and educational materials to help students find service projects. Students must volunteer for one local and one global project. In return, they'll get a ticket to the We Day celebration. "These are once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you remember when you grow up," said Cassellius. "They can be life-shaping."
The Jonas brothers -- Nick, Joe and Kevin -- drew some serious screams Wednesday when they hit the stage. They said they became converts to the cause after performing at a We Day in 2009. The brothers also have supported their own charitable passions, including diabetes research, the Special Olympics and volunteerism.
"We Day is young people helping young people," said Nick Jonas. "It's an amazing organization."
Minnesota students are avid volunteers. About 36 percent of Minnesotans between 16 to 18 -- or 121,000 -- do volunteer work, according to the 2012 Volunteering in America Report by the Corporation for National and Community Service.
These older teens average 32 hours of volunteer work a year. Assisting with athletic teams, tutoring, mentoring and ushering are among the more popular projects, the report said.
Dean Phillips, co-chair of the Phillips Family Foundation of Minneapolis, and his sister Hutton Phillips, a student at Breck School, hope to increase that number. They will chair the We Day organization in Minnesota.
"For decades people have tried to inspire kids to be volunteers and philanthropists,'' said Dean Phillips. "But they haven't always given them the tools.''
Students at St. Cloud Technical High School will be among the trailblazers in Minnesota. Several students heard Craig Kielburger speak at a conference in 2011, and decided to launch their own volunteer project, said Whitney Ambrose, 17, a St. Cloud Tech junior who was at the kickoff. They held a "We Scare Hunger" trick-or-treating event, collecting nearly a ton of food last Halloween, said Ambrose. They held a day of silence to call attention to people around the world who "don't have a voice." They held a mini We Day at school, with speakers addressing bullying.
And last year, a group bused to We Day in Winnipeg, joining 18,000 like-minded students.
"It was definitely life-changing," said Ambrose. "You go in knowing you want to do something. You leave knowing you can make a difference in the world."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511