Students had raised money for homeless youths, food for the hungry, goats for women in Kenya and countless other causes over the past year. Their payoff came Wednesday, when 18,000 like-minded Minnesota youths packed the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for the second annual We Day celebration.
The energetic crowd cheered with approval as more than a dozen speakers and celebrities urged them to continue their work, part of a global movement advocated by We Day organizers.
"We all have personal challenges, those that keep us up at night," said Clemantine Wamariya, a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s told them. "But we still show up to serve others."
Since the first We Day Minnesota last fall, students from more than 550 Minnesota schools have participated in one local and one global service project — which in turn gave them a ticket to the We Day celebration.
They volunteered 167,000 hours of community service and raised $378,250 for causes both local and global, said Dean Phillips, state co-chairman of the event.
Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed Nov. 12 We Day Minnesota, in honor of the volunteer blitz. National Basketball Association legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson offered words of encouragement — and announced a surprise $1 million donation to build schools in Africa.
Kweku Mandela, grandson of former South African President Nelson Mandela, told the packed center that his grandfather paid tribute to the "heroism of youth" the day he was released from prison. He called upon the "young lions" present to set forth and make the world a better place.
In the crowd cheering from the bleachers was Vivianna Russ, an 11-year-old from Minnetonka Middle School West.
"The people here are so inspirational," she said. "Everyone has gone through their own struggles in life. And they've all recovered. It's pretty amazing."
Kyaw Hywe and Yussef Elsawy, both children of immigrants attending Humboldt High School in St. Paul, said it felt good to be able to give back to their communities through a food drive.
"It tells the world we can make a difference," said Elsawy.
From Farmington to Kenya
Their stories were among hundreds represented in the bleachers. For example, Farmington High School and the Farmington School District raised over $10,000 to build schools in Kenya.
Johnson High School in St. Paul participated in the "We Scare Hunger" food drive, an anti-distracted-driving campaign, a blood drive and more.
St. Paul City Middle School collected food donations, volunteered at Bethel Nursing home and collected more than $500 to support a school in Ecuador.
"Today's generation of young people, the Me to We generation — have the power to create and lead real systemic change through We Day," said We Day co-founder Craig Kielburger.
"Over 200,000 students coast to coast, from 5,000 schools, earn their tickets to We Day by committing to take action on local and global causes they care about. They are truly moving the needle on some of today's most important issues."
Kielburger and his brother Marc Kielburger, of Canada, created Free the Children in 1995 when they were just in middle school. Over the years, it mushroomed into a national Canadian youth movement, packing auditorium-sized events for student volunteers.
The group expanded from its Canadian base to the United States last year. Minnesota was among its first venues, given its national status for community volunteerism.
Teachers see difference
Phillips, the Minnesota co-chair, said an unexpected result has been that teachers are reporting renewed inspiration as well.
Bev Antilley, a teacher at Minnetonka Middle School East, agreed. She said she was surprised by some of her students' generosity.
"It lets you see the good in the kids, to see them in a different light," Antilley said.
A news conference during the event drew a variety of student reporters. One was Aly Swanson, a sixth-grader from Wells, Minn. She addressed her question to Kielburger and actor Martin Sheen, who is known for his social and political activism and is a veteran of 12 We Days nationally.
"I live in a town of 2,000 people," Swanson said. "How can I make a difference?"
Kielburger responded that she could start a service club at school, and that the Minnesota We Day chapter would give her the tools. She could start a "We Scare Hunger" campaign, or a "We Are Silent" campaign to call attention to bullying. She could call the state office, bring in a speaker.
Sheen told the young reporters that he had to overcome two "traumatic" experiences in order to participate in We Day — flying in an airplane and speaking in front of an enormous crowd.
"You have to find in yourself another person," Sheen said.
That message, of rising above one's own individual needs to help others, resonated throughout the daylong celebration.
"No government or individual can solve all our problems," said Phillips. "But an army of thousands of young people around the world can make a difference."