THE BLOG

A Visit From the Governor General Can Make All the Difference

06/05/2013 08:28 EDT | Updated 08/05/2013 05:12 EDT

The elegantly attired woman looked out of place as she carefully rolled out and coiled her lump of play dough while teenagers nearby hunched intently over their own drawings and sculptures. She playfully offered a taste of her completed creation to the younger artisans. Giggling, they politely refused. Well, how would you respond if you were offered a play dough cinnamon bun by Her Excellency Sharon Johnston, wife of the Governor General of Canada?

The ice broken, the Viceregal Consort told the teens that she made a cinnamon bun sculpture because she loves to bake. She explained that baking with her five children helps them to open up to her when they need to talk.

Her teenage audience members were victims of sexual abuse participating in an after-school art therapy program that helps them open up and talk. It's one of the many programs at Stepping Stones International -- a small organization working with orphaned and vulnerable youth in Botswana.

Two weeks ago, Craig was invited to join Governor General David Johnston and his wife on a state visit to Ghana, Botswana and South Africa. In between the ceremonies and networking luncheons, her Excellency dropped in on Stepping Stones. In 2007, the Canadian government provided more than $30,000 in funding, and Canadian organizations such as the Stephen Lewis Foundation have given tens of thousands more over the past five years. The World University Service of Canada provides Canadian volunteer staff.

The tour reminded us of the many small organizations like this one, doing valuable work with Canadian support, yet we rarely hear about them at home. State visits build and strengthen international relations, but perhaps they also have an important role to play in shining a spotlight on untold stories: like Mama Rapoo's.

Mama Rapoo sold baked goods to feed herself and her teenage son. Yet there never seemed to be enough money -- it went out as fast as it came in. Then Mama Rapoo's son participated in a financial literacy course developed by Lila Pavey, a Stepping Stones program manager from Dartmouth, N.S.

The teenager shared what he had learned with his mother, and together they made their first household budget and a plan for her business. Mama Rapoo can now put aside 75 Pula every month -- roughly $9 in savings. It was incredible to watch the pride and excitement in Mama Rapoo's face as she showed off her financial knowledge and her cookies with her Excellency.

While the Viceregal Consort enjoyed the treats she was serenaded by a Botswanian celebrity: 16-year-old Luckymore Kwapa. Ironically, his success started with failing an exam.

University of Toronto student and Stepping Stones intern Charlene Williams explained that if Botswanian students fail their Grade 10 exam, their high school education is over. To help students succeed, Williams developed a Stepping Stones study program.

Luckymore was one such student. A few years ago, he failed that critical exam. He sat at home for many months moping, until a friend dragged him to Stepping Stones. Sitting around a bonfire at a leadership camp, the staff was stunned when Luckymore started to sing -- he had a voice fit for opera!

The team scoured Botswana's capital city of Gabarone until they found a music teacher willing to provide free vocal coaching. Last year, Luckymore won My African Dream -- Botswana's version of American Idol. He has since performed for the President of Botswana. Despite failing Grade 10, Luckymore received a special letter from the Botswanian government that secured his entrance -- and a full scholarship -- into a university sound engineering program. He plans to eventually study opera in South Africa.

After the mini-concert, her Excellency took a tour of Stepping Stones' small handicraft market with 18-year-old Mompati. Mompati's mother died when he was eight and his grandmother raised him and his seven siblings in a home with no regular income and never enough food. Malnutrition stunted his growth.

Winnipeg-born volunteer Joanna Shackleton recalled Mompati's first visits to Stepping Stones. He had difficulty respecting teachers and authority figures, she said. However, he was also highly intelligent with a head for business, so they made him manager of "Arts Masters," a program in which youth produce handicrafts for sale. His business skills blossomed, Shackleton said, as have his interpersonal skills. Mompati is now a college student, studying accounting and entrepreneurship.

Stories like these, the ones we discover travelling overseas, make us proudest to be Canadian. State visits by our Governor General are not headline-winning events -- they don't generate trade agreements or international treaties. But they do give us the chance to recognize and celebrate some of the best aspects of our country, and of our nation's values.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.