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ChangeMaker: Special Guests at the First Ever U.S. We Day

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Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, introduce us to not-so-ordinary citizens who are making a difference.

Students at Lincoln High, an inner-city school in Tacoma, Washington, banded together to support their peers; but their efforts extended beyond the schoolyard, to global service actions. And every action has meaning. Annual toy collections and food drives support the school's homeless population and other Lincoln students in need. To help integrate special needs students in the classroom, the school launched a campaign to raise awareness about mental health and special needs programs.

Students are in the midst of a penny drive to support a local homeless shelter, partly in honour of their namesake, America's 16th President Abraham Lincoln, who resides on the copper coin.
Local actions extended to global actions, all of which have earned the school a place at We Day, Free The Children's youth empowerment event. Lincoln High will attend the very first We Day in the United States, to be held in Seattle on March 27.

We spoke to Eleni Hamilton, Lincoln's Associated Student Body advisor and veteran business teacher at Lincoln for close to 20 years. Hamilton is beyond proud that, for her students, school involvement becomes community engagement that lasts a lifetime. "Once an Abe, always an Abe," she says. "It's like a family."

Lincoln High students are changemakers within their school family, local district and global community. Abe would be proud.

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What inspires your students to give back?

Well, it's a very poor school. I think 75 to 85 per cent of the students are on free and reduced-lunch [state-run school meal programs]. We are considered an inner-city school, and it's very diversified. Now it's almost equal thirds of Hispanic, white and black kids. It's about 1,500 students. We have a huge proportion of homeless students. So they see the diversity, they see the poverty, a lot of them feel the poverty, so they know what it's like.

I guess [what unites this diverse group] is that they do care. They are very giving kids. I think it's also a generational thing. I find this generation is more community-oriented, and more willing to help and volunteer.

What kind of actions are the students taking in your community?

The students have three blood drives, and they average about 100 pints every time, and they donate that to the local blood bank. And then a number of clubs from the school get together and do cleanups in the area. Each club takes turns and they go down to the soup kitchen and they serve before Thanksgiving, before Christmas, and various weekends. We have a huge toy drive, including a lot of huge toy drives for hospitals. And the book club, which is run by the librarian, does a drive for teenagers.

We also have Relay for Life. All the clubs get together, and walk all night. They raise money, about $700 every year, and we donate it to the Cancer Research Foundation of America.

Then of course, we have other clubs like the drumline that goes and plays for various events. And of course, every single one of them from choir and band go to the nursing homes and other places to sing before Christmas and other occasions.

And on top of all this, you're also doing global actions?

Well, we also do the Oxfam thing for Halloween -- collecting pennies, like trick or treat, but they also collect pennies and donate to Oxfam. And there was a program selling bracelets that are made in Africa and it was just to send money to African charities.

How have you seen students changing or developing by participating in this kind of community service?

You see them maturing. These are my kids, I have them for four years, so it's like seeing my own child growing up. So the maturity and the responsibility, and then you find that the charity expands as well. They know what is going around, and they know every little bit helps.

What are some of your success stories? Do you find that this community-mindedness continues even after graduation?

We call ourselves the Lincoln Abes -- Once an Abe always an Abe. Ten people who graduated from Lincoln are back teaching here. The school is a 100 years old, so there are great success stories. One of my senior presidents is working for Washington State University, but she came back to be the Chair Advisor. Our career centre counsellor is an alumnus who came back. We have an NFL football player who is back teaching Math here; his name is Jon Kitna. He's bringing oodles of support for students in football games now. But his motive is not so much in making football players, but wanting to make them into decent citizens.

Your students are role models in their community, but who do they look up to?

It ranges. It's not just athletes who are great athletically, but athletes that overcame obstacles. And... they like Obama! And a lot of times, they admire each other. I had a very shy, very productive student who always volunteered to give his time, even though he had a lot of problems at home. One of the other students said [of that boy]: he's my hero.

What are you hoping your students get out of attending We Day?

They are reading the Free The Children book and they want to know more about it! They just want to do more. They are excited to meet other kids [who are volunteering]. I want them to get that [global] perspective, especially because that will also help them with their studies, and it'll help them as citizens when they vote.

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

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