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Behind the Headlines: Meet the Changemakers Who Raised 140,000,000 Pennies

07/11/2013 05:37 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT
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In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about.

Toppled piggy banks lay discarded on dressers. Couch cushions litter living room floors, the remains of an archaeological expedition for loose change. Cup holders in family cars across the country are missing coffee money.

Youth across Canada have been busy collecting coins, especially pennies, and creating change.

Students from 3,000 schools, along with families and individual youth, have gathered a staggering 140 million pennies for Free The Children's We Create Change campaign. That's a lot of coin. Their pennies would outweigh 64 elephants, or five Boeing 747s (elephant tonnage and passenger jets always make numbers tangible).

More importantly, coins collected will support Free The Children's Water Initiative, and provide 56,000 people in developing communities around the world with access to clean water for life.

Globally, one billion people lack access to safe drinking water. In many parts of the world, the water sources used for cooking and drinking are also dumping grounds for garbage or animal waste, plagued with bacteria. Around 80 per cent of illness in developing regions are linked to poor water and sanitation.

Still, the water must be collected. Girls are most often tasked with fetching this dirty water sourced several kilometres from home, a task that can consume an entire afternoon and keep them out of school.

Clean water isn't a luxury; it's a basic human right. And it can help break the cycle of poverty.

We were so humbled by the efforts of youth who, after learning about clean water, dropped off bag after bag of pennies to our supporting partners at RBC branches across the country throughout the school year. Each full penny bag holds $25 in pennies -- enough to provide one person with clean water for life -- which means 56,000 bags were collected by some amazing youth.

We're taking you behind the scenes of Canada's largest youth-led penny drive to prove that every penny counts.

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Students in the Mackay satellite class at Westmount High School in Montreal, a class for students with special needs, formed a fundraising group last year. Their teacher, Dana Strohl, leads the group of 12 students, ages 14-20, who call themselves Leaders on Wheels.

Leaders on Wheels worked together to raise over $550 in pennies for We Create Change. The group also held bake sales and an Acts of Kindness week, where each student committed to performing a specific act of kindness for seven days -- holding doors open or complimenting others.

"The goal [of Leaders on Wheels] is to let people know that no matter what a person's disability, ability, challenges or background, everyone can become a leader, make a change and bring peace to the world," Strohl said.

Meanwhile on the west coast, hundreds of youth capped off a months-long fundraising initiative by scaling the steep, rocky terrain of Vancouver's Grouse Mountain for the Whistler Water One Climb. The climbers raised a staggering $110,000, enough to provide clean water for thousands of people.

Tyler Olinik overcame a different kind of hurdle. He wanted to join the Free The Children fundraising group at his Ottawa-area school. But he would have been the only boy -- a serious taboo for the 10-year-old (trust us, Tyler: you'll grow out of it).

Tyler started his own group with 10 buddies from his hockey team. Tyler, as leader, equipped each member with a binder full of information about clean water, as well as a penny bag to get started with their collection. Team Change, as we like to call them, raised $725.

You don't need to start with a team; you can recruit. Toronto-area blogger Hannah Alper launched a We Create Change penny drive in her elementary school. But she didn't stop there. Hannah gave presentations about the campaign and the importance of clean water at a neighboring school, inspiring more students to get involved. Together, the two schools raised 97,000 pennies, in large part due to Hannah's efforts to lead the challenge. Hannah is also 10 years old.

There is no age restriction or height requirement for changing the world. You don't even need a social insurance number. Kids and their piggy banks are creating global change.

And it's not too late to get involved. Click here to learn more about Free The Children's Water Initiative.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com