Minnesota’s most celebrity-packed event of the year rocked St. Paul on Tuesday as 18,000 teens screamed just as loudly for Martin Luther King III and Queen Noor of Jordan as they did for heartthrobs Jonas Brothers and singer Dessa.
It was the first Minnesota “We Day,” a daylong event in which students jammed the Xcel Energy Center for inspiration and entertainment. Featured celebrities and motivational speakers encouraged teens to help their communities and the world. Everyone at the high-energy event had pledged to do volunteer work in the year ahead.
It’s the foundation of We Day, launched in Canada in 2007 by the nonprofit Free the Children and now the most high-profile event in the youth service world.
More than 160,000 students in the United States and Canada will participate in similar events over the course of the year.
“We Day shows our generation that it’s possible to change the world … and that it’s cool to care,” said We Day co-founder Craig Kielburger.
That was the message of the day, delivered by such varied advocates as actress Mia Farrow, Bridgit Mendler of Disney’s “Good Luck Charlie,” singer Carly Rae Jepson, the Kenyan Boys Choir, several Minnesota Vikings players and more.
Emma Hudson Sanchez, a freshman at the Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins, called the event “amazing.”
“It gave me goose bumps just watching some of the videos,” Sanchez said. “It was so inspiring. ”
Inspiration was the goal of We Day, which drew students and teachers from 400 Minnesota schools who signed up to participate in “We Act” — volunteer opportunities throughout the year.
The project was endorsed by Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Gov. Mark Dayton, who was on hand to proclaim Tuesday “Minnesota We Day.”
Martin Luther King III, one of the first speakers, told the crowd that the message of We Day would clearly resonate with his father.
“My father understood that every generation has its calling,” King said.
“If my father and mother were alive, I can assure you they would be right in the middle of this movement.”
A lesson from royalty
Queen Noor told the students that the “values of We Day” are not held by just one culture.
She also shared the importance of keeping abreast of events around the world. In war-torn Syria, for example, more than 3,000 schools have been destroyed, she said, and another 1,000 were converted into shelters. About a million students have dropped out of school.
Can you imagine if that many students weren’t attending Minnesota schools, she asked.
Meanwhile Joe Jonas, of the Jonas Brothers, challenged his fans to raise enough money to build two schools in developing countries — part of a fundraising project available through “We Create Change.’’
Jonas said he has participated in travel tours to Kenya with Free the Children, the nonprofit organization that oversees We Day, and that the experience has had a profound effect on his life. His band has its own foundation, the Jonas Brothers Change for the Children Foundation.
“I never thought of myself as a role model,” Jonas said at a news conference.
“But there are people who look up to you in your industry. Being nice is finally being looked at as a cool thing.”
Victim of bullying
Perhaps the most touching moment came from Molly Burke, a blind young woman from Ontario, Canada. She talked about the time a group of “popular” girls in high school lured her into a wooded area behind school when she had a broken ankle and was on crutches. Once she sat down, the girls broke her crutches, took her backpack and belongings, and ran.
It didn’t break her spirit.
“The only thing stronger than bullying is the courage to stop them,” she told the crowd.
That message resonated with Daniel Fernandez and Clarisse Adjo Glissou from Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis. Both are immigrants and could relate to the pain of bullying.
“This has made me proud,” Fernandez said. “There’s a knitting club at Wellstone. Maybe we could make hats or scarves and send them to another country?”
Takawi Peters, a member of the youth development team at Minneapolis Public Schools Community Education, was among the teachers and staff in the audience. She said she appreciated that the We Day message wasn’t just about giving money.
While many students at lower-income schools don’t have money to give, they do have talents, she said.
They could, for example, organize a performance, charge an admission fee, and use that money to support a cause, she said.
“I hear people say, ‘This school can’t do that,’ ” Peters said. “It’s not what we can’t do, it’s what we can give.”
Throughout the event, speakers talked about the critical need for schools, clean water and food in so many parts of the world. The mix of global and local sparked fresh ideas for volunteer projects for many students.
“Now when I go to the National Honor Society [meetings], I have lots of ideas,” said Audrey Cruse, a senior at Great River School in St. Paul. “There’s so many things out there, I still don’t know the rest.”
In the months ahead, new opportunities will be available. “We Create Change” is a new fundraiser to build 200 schools, 25 cents at a time. “We Scare Hunger” encourages students to trick-or-treat for food shelf donations. “We Will Be Giant” is an antibullying initiative.
And “WeDay365” is a new app and website, launching Oct. 18, that will allow students to rally friends to support causes, take challenges, track volunteers hours and more.
“We hope this is not a one-day event,” Kielburger told the crowd, “but that it launches a year of action.”