By Brennan Wong
My journey started with a picture, $50, a goat and a dream. In 2007, I was in 4th grade when my teacher introduced the class to an organization called Free the Children. "Children helping children" was an alien concept to young children who still needed their parents' help with a host of things. But I was intrigued, and soon began to investigate on the Internet why other children needed help, and what I could do.
I came upon an old picture of an emaciated African child that was published in the New York Times in 1993. The child was a starving girl of 4 to 6 years old crawling out of the bush towards a feeding station, as a plump vulture stalked her in the background. To this day, the fate of that little girl remains unknown but that image has been seared into my memory and has shaped my thinking ever since. I was saddened at the plight of children like her around the world who faced starvation and disease, and I wondered why the difference of geography seemed to determine their drastically different fates.
Since that day I had decided that having a shocked conscience at these images would no longer be a sufficient response, and that only taking positive action to "inflict" maximum good could prevent similar catastrophes. I found that opportunity through Free the Children, where young people can volunteer and fundraise for projects in developing countries to fight poverty, starvation and child exploitation. I decided that my first action would be to buy a goat for a family abroad for $50, which would provide them with an alternative source of income. That simple gift made me realize my potential for helping people in the bigger world out there; and I felt inspired and motivated to do more, but I did not know where to begin. What could an average suburban 8 year-old change about the world anyway without having a lot of money to donate?
I soon learned that it was not just all about giving money, but it was the passion about issues, ability to share the message, and the drive to volunteer that makes helping others possible. I soon learned that anyone (even young people) could make a difference in the lives of others around the world. It all starts by committing to take one action in support of a local or global issue.
My volunteering experience in Ecuador with Me to We during the summer of 2012 gave rise to the idea behind an organization I founded last year called Pledges for Change, a youth-led non-profit initiative that identifies the challenges that communities face, and empowers people to volunteer their time, ideas and effort to come up with solutions. This is my primary philanthropic focus as I head into my final year of high school and beyond.
In Ecuador, "minga" is the coming together of the community to contribute to a common project for its betterment. Modeling Pledges for Change on the minga, my team and I select community projects to support in the form of financial donation and social media coverage to raise the profile of the featured cause.
Pledges for Change appeals to all citizens and helps youth recognize issues faced by many communities both here at home and abroad such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental illness and bullying. I believe that all people have the power to become more directly engaged in solving these problems. It takes more than ideas, inspiration and compassion from charities and non-profits to search for solutions, Pledges for Change seeks to empower everyday people to unlock their potential and resourcefulness; and come forward with one action they plan to take in support of an issue.
Through my volunteer experiences and philanthropic endeavors, I realized that people from all walks of life (especially youth) have the power to make positive impact in their communities. I hope to learn even more ways that youth can get involved and brainstorm ideas that will help make a difference in my community after the August 2014 UN Youth Assembly.
Brennan Wong is a 16 year old student attending Richmond Hill High School in Ontario, Canada. Motivated by his experiences with the charity Free the Children and empowered to take action and change the world, he co-founded two philanthropic initiatives and most recently founded Pledges for Change, the largest non-profit of its kind in Canada. Focused on inspiring today's generation of young people to volunteer through their unique programming and events, Pledges for Change has raised over $13,000 for various charities in its first year. Brennan has shared his perspective on the power of youth and giving back to the community with thousands of young people across Canada and the United States alongside dignitaries such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Princess Sophie of Wessex, and Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free the Children.
Recognized as one of Canada's Top 20 under 20 in 2014, Brennan is confident in the potential of young people to become exceptional leaders of tomorrow, and it all begins with youth empowerment to create positive changes in their own communities. He believes that we can all inspire a generation to change the world if we all commit to taking one action."