THE BLOG
12/06/2012 11:50 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

Children Helping Children

I've never felt so fortunate to say, "Here we go again."

I awoke Monday to find my colleagues digging out from under an avalanche of emails that pushed our wobbly web server to its peak capacity -- the overwhelming response to a generous 12-minute feature about our organization, Free The Children, on Sunday night's edition of the iconic TV news magazine, 60 Minutes.

It reminded me of a scene 16 years ago: I had just returned from a two-month trip to southeast Asia, where I had explored the issue of child labor and caused some uncomfortable publicity for my Canadian Prime Minister during his trade mission to India. Freshly home, I was sitting in my living room with the legendary Ed Bradley. And I was 13 years old.

Mr. Bradley had come with his 60 Minutes crew to see our home-turned-headquarters for a fledgling children's charity, just north of Toronto, Canada. He sat across from me with his trademark earring and warm, gentle smile, and I was so nervous I stammered through his first couple questions.

He stopped me and looked around the room, his eyes landing on my grandfather's old billiards table. "Let's play a game of pool," he said.

To break the ice, he showed me a few pretty remarkable trick shots -- remnants, he told me, of his "misspent youth."

When we took a second, more relaxed, shot at the interview, I told him my story. I had been looking for the comics in the newspaper and stumbled on a headline that read "Battled child labor, boy, 12, murdered." Iqbal Masih was sold at age four into slavery in his home country, Pakistan. At age 10, he escaped and told the world about the conditions that he and other children experienced. He traveled to North America and Europe to tell their story. Back home at age 12, he was shot and killed.

I was Iqbal's age when he died, and I was struck by the differences between our lives. I brought the article into my seventh grade class and asked my classmates to help me do something. There were 12 of us at first, all 12 years old, calling charities to ask if we could help. "If you really want to help," we were told by one well-known organization, "Do you know where your parents keep their credit card?"

We knew kids could do more than collect change from their relatives, so we started our own youth-driven organization and called it Free The Children. Our dual mission was to free children overseas from the bonds of exploitation and poverty, and to free kids at home from the pervasive idea that they couldn't make a difference -- that they were too young to fulfill their potential as agents for change.

After a summer spent doing car washes and bake sales for the fledging charity, I sat down with my parents -- two school teachers -- and told them that I wanted to take two months off school during eighth grade to travel to southeast Asia and actually meet these child laborers. I can still hear their laughter: "We don't even let you take the subway to downtown Toronto."

But I asked so often that Mom banned the word "Asia" at home. I shoveled driveways to save money, and found a chaperone whose family was from the region to accompany me. After six months, my parents relented. Along with the chaperon, I traveled to the factories and the fields to meet child laborers and witness their realities. We met with organizations advocating for the children and went on raids to free them.

Our story quickly spread around the world, including to the desk of a 60 Minutes producer -- that's how I found myself talking to Ed Bradley.

When that first feature aired, we suddenly felt like we were in a movie: the stunned postal workers dumped huge burlap bags of letters onto that old pool table. Our simple Web site crashed, and the volume of emails brought down all the servers for the whole Internet service company that hosted us.

Over the past 16 years there are two moments that defined the growth of our youth-driven charity. The first was that 60 Minutes piece. The second was being joined by my older brother Marc, a Harvard undergrad and Rhodes Scholar who studied Law at Oxford University. Together, we're honored to engage more than 1.7 million middle school and high school students across the U.S., Canada, UK and Japan, who are involved in our comprehensive service-learning programs.

Our programming starts at home with one-of-a-kind stadium gatherings called We Days, to which 100,000 students from 3,000 schools earn their free ticket by performing at least one local and one global action of service. Students act as delegates for their schools and hear from presenters like world leaders Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Dalai Lama, along with celebrities Demi Lovato, Jennifer Hudson, and Justin Bieber.

The timing of Sunday night's 60 Minutes feature couldn't be better, as our first U.S. We Day is in Seattle this March, and other locations will be announced in the coming months. In 2014, we launch We Day in the UK.

The local and global impact of those students is incredible. Children who collect birthday money and offer up their piggy banks have raised the funds to build 650 schools and school rooms in developing countries that educate 55,000 children every day; helped 30,000 women achieve income self-sufficiency; and provided clean water, health care and sanitation to one million people.

Every year, thousands of those students, aged 13 to 25, spend their summer or spring break visiting the communities they have adopted overseas. They do not simply fundraise to build a school, but we facilitate for them to see it with their own eyes and help to physically build it too.

A study of our alumni from the past five years by independent Chicago-based research firm Mission Measurement found that 80 percent continued to volunteer an average of 150 hours annually; 83 percent continued to donate to a non-profit or charity; and 79 percent of voting-age alumni voted in the past U.S. or Canadian national elections -- double the rate of their peers.

From that first day in my eighth-grade class, we 12-year-olds believed that the greatest bet you can make is on young people. When we inspire kids and give them all the tools they need to take action, it changes their lives, and through an incredible ripple effect we've seen happen again and again, they can change the world.

Craig Kielburger is founder of Free The Children, an educational partner and international charity. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, will be held in Seattle on March 27, 2013, with other US cities to be announced. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger