When youth are empowered, so is the world and We Day Illinois illustrated the potent power of the area’s youngest residents. Held at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL, the youth- empowerment event brought out a diverse group of influencers—putting youth in the forefront of change by challenging them to take on social responsibility. As an initiative of Free the Children, We Day is a celebration that is tied to the organization’s We Act program that involves students in community and global causes across the United States and Canada.
Free the Children co-founders and brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger created Free the Children in 1995. The first We Day event was held in 2007 and since its inception, the youth involved have raised over $37 million for upwards of 1,000 causes and have volunteered for more than 9.6 million hours.
“The core idea is simple, “We believe that youth are not problems to be solved; we believe they are problem-solvers,” says Craig Kielburger.
The strategy for We Day and We Act has proven to be an effective one. The students involved in the program show impressive growth—63 percent are more likely to finish high school and 20 percent are more likely to become role models for their peers.
“Truly these great transformative changes are a result of the program and the greatest change happens in the young people themselves—when young people are conscious of their power to make a positive influence,” adds Craig.
For the first time, this fun-filled day was extended to Illinois and is supported by We Day national sponsor and Free the Children partner Allstate—a partnership which will help over 400,000 young people this year. Entertainers and co-hosts Jesse Giddings and Selena Gomez seamlessly guided the action-packed program, which included those in entertainment, social justice, philanthropy and more.
Some of Chicago’s own favorite, award-winning stars were closely involved in the event’s execution. With hip-hop’s Common as co-chair of We Day Illinois and R&B’s Jennifer Hudson as national co-chair, music, as
well as the Chicago community, was well-represented. Thoughtful and highly entertaining performances were weaved throughout the event starting with an electrifying performance of “Try” by Colbie Caillat and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds along with Ally Del Monte—a singer, songwriter and blogger—who is dedicated to being the voice of those who are bullied. Other amazing performers included country music group The Band Perry, a collaboration of Jennifer Hudson and Chicago rapper/ lyricist Lupe Fiasco and a spoken word piece by Common.
The real stars of the day, of course, were the student speakers and honorees. On stage, these remarkable young people and their work were shared in the youth-filled stadium to show that change agents are not limited by age. Nine-year-old motivational speaker and National Junior Disability Champ Ezra Frech shared inspiring words and was surprised by NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Razia Hutchins and Maurice Young, seniors at Perspectives Charter School, were among the local honorees. The teens are creators of the I Am for Peace anti-violence movement and were each presented with a $10 thousand college scholarship.
“Maurice and I felt beyond blessed to receive that award,” says Hutchins. “We didn’t come up with this movement to earn any monetary benefits—we just wanted to inspire lives and make a difference in our city.”
Each young person who attended We Day Illinois earned his or her spot for commitment to both a local and global issue and Maurice Sanders of Christian Fenger High School is one such extraordinary teen. With a strong desire to make a difference in his community, Sanders is a member of the Mikva Challenge Peace and Leadership Council, an organization that involves youth in civic issues.
“Right now, we are working with the police to build the youth-police relationship within our neighborhood,” says Sanders. “We’re planning an event where the police and the youth can meet and talk to each other—the youth can see that there’s a person behind the badge and the police can learn that the youth aren’t as dangerous as they may seem.”
Aside from the festive environment, the young attendees of We Day were essentially inside what Craig Kielburger refers to as a “giant classroom” with words of wisdom infectiously being spread throughout the arena. Filled with excitement, the kids chanted “I can, I believe” as speakers poured positivity into their
Tom Wilson, chairman and CEO of The Allstate Corporation and co-chair of We Day Illinois, shared a powerful story about Claudette Colvin, who at just 15 years old refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, AL and became the first person to be arrested for this reason, which eventually led to significant change.
“Claudette believed she could make a difference and I believe that you can,” encouraged Wilson. “Good starts young, so remember that you can dream big. When you combine your voices and rise up together, you’re more powerful than any CEO or politician.”
Participants were also reminded of the correlation between success and selflessness. Dr. Fred Richardson, founder and medical director of Dr. Richardson’s Neighborhood Family Practice, shared the monumental way that youth can look beyond themselves to do good in everything they do, just as he has in his Chicago-area practice and global initiatives.
“My goal in life is to open doors to those in underprivileged areas and to give an extra hand to anyone who feels they are an underdog,” says Dr. Richardson. “I’ve learned that success is to be shared—it’s less about me and more about what I can do for others. So, when you grab that star, use it to help the next person who may be struggling behind you; remember where you come from.”
Common also spoke on why even with adversity, young people can perform incredible acts of external compassion and personal growth, which embodies the We Day spirit: “We’re all built with the ability and the genes to overcome difficult situations to become the champions that we were created to be.”
Audiences can view moments from We Day Illinois during its first-ever national broadcast on August 21, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. CT on ABC.