At one moment: for Craig Kielburger of Toronto, Canada, life consisted of going to school, listening to music, trying out for the cross-country running team, being a boy scout, attending church, hanging out with friends.
Then a life changing moment: for Craig, and as it turned out, for his family -- parents and his older brother, Mark -- as well. It was an experience that changed their life as a family and has brought them closer together.
About to read the comics before running off to school on April 19, 1995, Craig's eyes did not make it past the front page story about Iqbal Masih in the Toronto Star: "Staring back at me was the headline 'Battled Child Labor, Boy, 12, Murdered.' It was a jolt. Twelve, the same age as I was. My eyes fixed on the picture of a boy in a bright-red vest. He had a broad smile, his arm raised straight in the air, a fist clenched. I read on. 'Defied members of carpet mafia.'"
Craig turned to his mother, Theresa, to ask "What exactly is child labor?" Not knowing anything more than he knew, she suggested that he "try the library at school." No information there. After school he went to the public library, where the librarian helped him locate newspaper and magazine articles about the issue. The images and stories touched his heart deeply. He couldn't believe that the cruelty of child labor existed and that there are over 250 million working children. His idea of what childhood was about, based on his own experience of it, was shattered.
A normal childhood for him soon meant "getting involved because you believe so deeply in a cause that you can't see yourself standing on the sidelines, waiting for other people to act." That activism meant a dramatic change for his family: their home became a public place, phone calls and faxes were continuous, there was constant activity. Craig's parents initially thought that it was a phase, and that he would grow out of it. However, once they realized his deep commitment and sense of mission, they have continually believed in, guided, and supported him. His brother, Mark, has been his mentor and role model in many ways, including activism and public speaking.
To satisfy his desire to understand child labor, Craig's mother suggested that he contact a friend of hers who had worked overseas. That contact led to calls to human rights organizations, including the Youth Action Network, which happened to be sponsoring an event in Toronto at that time. Then, Craig was in contact with Alam Rahman, a recent university graduate and whose parents were from Bangladesh. Alam would soon play a central role in Craig's life.
He affirmed Craig's idea of getting some friends together and starting a childrens' group to fight the cruelty of child labor. Following a brief presentation to his class, Craig soon had 18 volunteers. That vibrant group of seventh graders began preparing displays, gathering signatures on a petition, and forming themselves into a group known as * Free the Children. At their first youth fair, people flocked to their table to see what young people had to say.
Free the Children realized that more power needed to be in the hands of young people. "Children need to have a voice and have to be able to participate in issues that affect them. Who best to understand children than other children?"
In November, 1995, Craig was invited to speak to the Ontario Federation of Labor Convention in Toronto, Canada. He spoke from his heart for 15 minutes, way over the 3-minute limit which he had been given. The 2,000 members gave him a standing ovation and donated $150,000 to Free the Children to help build a rehabilitation and education center in Alway, India, for children freed from slavery as carpet weavers.
As more and more children became involved, Free the Children continued to grow. Presentations at one school led to invitations to another. As the fledgling group addressed more groups, questions arose which they couldn't answer. They learned that knowledge was the key to be taken seriously.
Dr. Panuddha Boonpala from the International Labor Organization in Geneva told Craig: "If you really want to understand the issue of child labor, then you should go to South Asia and meet the children yourself." His friend Alam invited him to travel with him to Asia to meet working children. Craig wanted to go.
That someone at age 12 wanted to undertake such a journey was quite unusual. That his parents, after much persuasion and assurances from contacts in Asia, allowed him to do so is a testament to them and their belief in their son. Extensive fund raising, planning, and preparations were necessary. Unknown and possibly dangerous situations would be faced. New cultures, religious beliefs, foods, ways of traveling would be part of everyday life.
Accompanied by his 25-year old friend, Alam, Craig had a profoundly moving and educational experience in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Nepal. His primary goal was to meet street and working children, hear their stories, and learn how Free the Children could help. At the same time, Craig wanted to experience and learn about the many cultures, foods, and traditions of these countries. Possessing a deep faith, he also had a special interest in world religions.
Throughout their travels, Craig and Alam met with children from labor camps, slums and back alleys. One of them was a young girl, Maniannal, in Madras, India. She was about 8 years old, and her job was to sort through used syringes -- from hospitals and off the streets -- with lightning speed to separate the needles from the plastic. Craig was concerned about her contacting a serious disease, such as HIV/AIDS, from needles pricking her hands or bare feet. She didn't realize the potential danger. Her response, through an interpreter, to what she would do if pricked: "She will wash it."
Craig soon learned how to share her story and many others at a Free the Children press conference for the local media, at which two child laborers shared their stories. The Canadian press -- covering Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien's, trip as part of a trade delegation in Southeast Asia -- was also invited to attend. The Prime Minister had initially refused to meet with Craig about children's human rights issues. However, with the coverage and pressure following Free the Children's press conference, Craig suddenly had his first of many meetings with political leaders.
Craig's innate desires and abilities to connect with others, to learn, and to be proactive propelled him into his future, one that he had never dreamed of before. During this first trip, he displayed an ability to relate with others, especially children. He learned from them, ate with them, experienced their fears and pain. He danced with them, played games with them, and developed many new friendships as they traveled from one place to the next.
Many of the children's lives consisted of no schooling, but rather of hard, usually unsafe, repetitive work from early morning to late at night. Despite this, Craig found a spirit of hope still in them that was inspiring and has motivated him to further action on their behalf. "Meeting these children is like a gift," for him. "When I was in Thailand, I saw a street girl with an orange. She automatically took it and split it with her friend -- no question about the matter." In India, street children carried a child with no legs from place to place because they didn't want to leave him behind.
Children like these have continued to be heroes for Craig and to inspire his commitment and efforts on their behalf. With his leadership, Free the Children has developed two main purposes:
Early on, Craig learned that education is most effective way to end child poverty and the exploitation of children. Through Free the Children, young people around the world are raising funds to build schools -- over 200 have already been built! Other campaigns include Peacebuilding and Leadership Training. Free the Children is the world's largest network of children helping children, with over 100,000 participants in 27 countries. Over the past five years, Craig has traveled to more than 30 countries visiting street and working children in order to effectively defend children's rights.
Craig was the impetus for this wonderful organization. However, he would be the first to tell you that thousands of others made it happen and continue to do so. Craig's inspirational story demonstrates how the world becomes a better place when children have opportunities to participate in finding solutions to problems which affect them and their peers.
As his mother says: "Never underestimate what children can do. Little steps, taken over the years, on a daily basis, show the power of children!"
* Free the Children has been renamed Kids Can Free the Children (KCFTC),
To learn more about Craig, read "Free the Children:
Pictures/logo -- thanks to Kids Can Free the Children