05/05/2015 05:30 EDT | Updated 05/05/2016 05:59 EDT

What 20 Years Has Taught Us: Empowering People to Be Changemakers

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African little girl during her english class

Without the shelter of trees, talons of wind rend the vulnerable farm fields of Salabwek, Kenya, stripping away precious topsoil. But one 16-year-old arborist is bringing back the trees.

Mercy Chepchilat, a Grade 11 student at Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School in southern Kenya, saw that deforestation from charcoal burning had taken a heavy toll on her village. Soil erosion made the crops sickly and poor. So for a school project, Mercy got her community to plant new trees. She's since overseen the planting of hundreds of saplings.

Mercy's work thrills us, because in this teen we see a sterling example of the most important lesson we've learned over 20 years of trying to change the world. We've come to realize the age-old mantra about "teaching a person to fish" is incomplete. There's a missing piece. If you really want to create lasting and sustainable change, teach a person to teach 100 others to fish. Then you feed an entire community, forever.

It's hard to believe it's really been two decades since we launched a non-profit organization dedicated to ending child labour from our parents' living room. As teenagers starting out, we quickly learned that simply kicking down doors to free enslaved children from overseas carpet factories didn't solve child labour. It was a Band-Aid solution. We had to address the underlying problems of poverty, providing education and livelihoods.

The kitchen gardens at Free The Children's elementary schools in countries like Kenya and India turn students into teachers. They learn valuable skills, like drip irrigation, that they bring home and teach to their farming families. They also teach their families habits of a healthy home, such as building pit latrines, purifying water, and using bed nets to prevent malaria.

Through community service projects, high school students like Mercy also become community leaders. They identify a problem, such as a lack of trees, develop a solution, and mobilize their families and neighbours.

Educating one student becomes the pathway to change for an entire community. This principle applies as much in Canada as Kenya.

Many government and non-profit programs for young Canadians--particularly vulnerable and at-risk youth -- aim too low. The goal of youth programs is simply to get kids off the street and occupy them so they don't get into trouble. It's frustrating that young people are seen as problems to be solved. We view them as problem solvers who can change the world.

Our objective is not simply to keep young people busy, but rather to get them giving back. By volunteering in seniors' homes, tutoring younger children with reading, or organizing an awareness campaign on global poverty, the youth in our domestic programs gain valuable life skills, such as leadership, and they improve the world around them.

Helping others becomes a lifelong habit. A survey of people who participated in our school programs as youth shows that an astounding 80 per cent continue to give at least 150 hours of volunteer time every year.

Of those, 20 per cent even go on to start their own non-profits and social enterprises -- people like Cheryl Perera. At 16, she was organizing school fundraisers and student conferences to fight child exploitation. Perera went on to found the child-rights organization OneChild, raising awareness about child slavery and helping support young survivors of exploitation. Perera has been named as one of the 100 most powerful women in Canada.

When we help, the patient become the doctor, the student become the teacher, the troubled youth become the counsellor -- when the helped becomes the helper -- the impact multiplies by orders of magnitude.

It's the difference between giving youth a seedling to plant, and empowering them to lead their community in growing forest.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

Free The Children celebrated its 20th anniversary in April.