03/26/2013 12:07 EDT | Updated 05/26/2013 05:12 EDT

ChangeMaker: The Difference a Letter Can Make


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

One of our first actions as a charity was a letter-writing campaign, in 1995. Free The Children was then just a group of a dozen 12-year-olds, but we collected 3,000 signatures and wrote a letter demanding the release of Kailash Satyarthi, who was detained by Indian police for leading the fight against bonded labour. We sent our petition -- in the form of taped-together sheets of lined paper -- to the Indian government in Delhi. In a shoebox.

A year later, Satyarthi came to Canada to speak about his humanitarian work, and called our petition "one of the most powerful actions taken on my behalf."

Don't underestimate the power of a letter, especially the power of many pens. Groups like Amnesty International rely on letter-writing campaigns to put pressure on political leaders to release prisoners of conscience throughout the world.

"Politicians say that every letter stands for a thousand people's viewpoints. Because one person has taken the time to write," says Sandi Rae, a teacher at Mt. Slesse Middle School in Chilliwack, B.C.

She recently wrote an email -- that counts as a letter, right? -- telling us about her Grade 9 Leadership class and their letter-writing campaign to protest funding cuts for the Rainier Hotel in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, which was, until recently, the only residential treatment centre for women in the area. One of the most troubled postal codes in Canada, the Downtown Eastside is home to crushing poverty, a high prevalence of homelessness, drug abuse and prostitution.

With a portion of its federal funding expired, the Rainier Hotel was forced to layoff staff and cut programming in December 2012 -- career counselling, yoga, nutrition classes, creative writing and anger management -- "the holistic support that helped the centre's high recovery rate," says Rae. While it will remain open as a single occupancy hotel (SRO), treatment will be moved offsite. It's this loss of funding and the cessation of the holistic model that Rae's class is upset with. The hotel has even lost funding for the meal program. Hotel residents had their "last supper" in February.

Expired government funding and diminished social services is hardly a "sexy" cause, Rae admits. But something about the power of a letter appealed to her and to her class. This campaign gives a more subtle, symbolic voice to the marginalized women who've lost crucial services, says Rae. "Kids say, 'wow, I've become this woman's voice.' This woman was homeless or an addict. And that's pretty powerful. Because these women have no voice."


Rae's Leadership class didn't stop in their classroom. The 41 students visited every homeroom in the school, then went to surrounding schools across the region -- all to encourage others to write letters.

Mt. Slesse has sent around 400 letters to the hotel, Rae estimates, though she can't account for others sent in by surrounding schools. "We want to reverse the funding cuts," she says. "We want to save the hotel."

It's just an added bonus, Rae adds, that her students are learning about persuasive writing techniques. "They're not doing bake sales forever. Ideally, they're going to grow up to form political opinions and join service groups," she explains.

What kids fight for with proceeds from the sale of homemade brownies, adults fight for with informed opinions and pointed rhetoric. Rae is helping her students ease into the transition by teaching writing techniques. Starting with the very basics: teaching the 14-year-old students, raised online, how to write properly-composed formal letters.

Rae wrote to us about the power of a letter, so we thought we'd pay it forward.

If you'd like to join Sandi Rae's Grade 9 Leadership class and write a letter to support the Rainier Hotel, you can do so at

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