Students work to "Free the Children"

By Katie Norman
I.J. Samson Junior High School
St. John's, Newfoundland

Imagine walking past a pet shop on your way to school everyday. There you see those sad little faces staring out at you from the window, begging that you take them home. Your heart becomes weak and for the next few nights at supper you beg your parents to buy the puppy in the window. Alas, they say no and eventually you take another route to school to avoid those sad faces. This is the way child labour has been treated for many years. People pity the children but yet do nothing to help them.

One child experienced these sad "puppy" faces and decided to do something about them. His name is Craig Kielburger. Four years ago, Keilburger's day started like any other. He was looking for the comics in the newspaper when he came upon an article about Iqbal Masih. There was a photo of Iqbal wearing a red vest and holding his fist up high. Keilburger was especially touched by the story because the boy was 12 – the same age as him.

Iqbal, a Pakistani, had been sold to a carpet company, as a carpet weaver when he was only four years old. Iqbal's parents received $16 in return for him. There he was forced to tie tiny knots all day long. Iqbal told the world of his story. He had experienced first hand the effects of child labour and knew that he had to do something about it. Unfortunately Iqbal was murdered for fighting against child labour.

When Keilburger read this he knew he had to do something. He started right away researching about child labour. He gathered up eight of his friends and started up the organization that is now known as Free The Children. It is an organization that works to help children from all over the world that are suffering from child labour.

Keilburger learned that there were 250 million children working in child labour all over the world.

"I knew I had to do something. I wasn't certain what I could do, but I knew I had to at least try," Kielburger said in a recent interview with SNN. "I had never heard about child labour but the differences in our lives shocked me."

Once Free The Children was up and running for six months, Keilburger decided to go to South Asia.

"I knew I had to go to South Asia to meet the working children and to speak to them so that they could tell me, themselves, how we could help."

And help they have. Free The Children now has chapters in 20 countries all over the world. It's an organization run by children to help children. Joining Free The Children is as easy as writing to them and saying you want to help. They are always willing to accept new members. In fact, many chapters exist without actually joining the network.

The purpose of this organization is nicely summed up by the head of the first Newfoundland Chapter, Ariana Patey.

"Besides the good we do, it's great working in an organization where kids are controlling the situation. The point is children taking the initiative to help their peers," says Patey. "We are helping kids all over the world and at the same time helping ourselves. It does a lot for a person's self-esteem to know that they can have a positive effect on the world despite their age."

In Canada, the organization is currently working on a bunch of projects. There is a petition circulating about the use of children in the pornography trade. Another new project is the Friendship School Campaign. School kids all over North America are raising funds to build 100 new schools in the developing world.

"Education is the key to eliminating exploitative child labour and poverty," said Kielburger.

There are schools being set up in a village outside Managua, Nicaragua and villages outside Calcutta and Madras, India. Schools in North America send the funds for the materials and citizens in these villages build the schools. This way, the villagers feel they are contributing to the work so they get a sense of accomplishment when the school is built. As of now, enough money has been raised to build ten schools in Nicaragua.

To go along with this students in North America are sending 100,000 school kits to these countries. Every kit consists of pencils, exercise books, rulers, pencil sharpeners, erasers, crayons and tennis balls. These kits are given to children so that they may attend school. Many children cannot go to school because they lack these basic tools that are required for enrolment. The kits are sent to children in the Philippines who live on a garbage dump, to Mother Teresa's Orphanage in Calcutta and to Nelson Mandela's Children Centers in South Africa.

The Kosovo project is a project I myself am working on. We are sending health kits to refugees from Kosovo. Currently chapters in Canada, the United States and Austria are working on these kits. A health kit consists of a wash cloth, small towel, toothbrush and toothpaste, comb, nail file, Band-Aids and soap. Each kit is packaged individually and sent in a Ziploc bag. Once the kits arrive at the refugee camps, they are stored in an empty home. One of these homes has nine rooms and all of them are currently stacked full of kits.

The Alternative Income Project is also going on at this time. Chapters of Free The Children are raising money to buy cows, sewing machines and land for people who cannot afford them themselves. This helps because many poor families have to sell their children to factories because they have no other source of income. To me, this project is very exciting. This way we can help the lives of a lot of families and give them something to be proud of.