03/26/2014 10:07 EDT | Updated 05/26/2014 05:59 EDT

One Child's Education Is a Whole Community's Dream

Bernard Rotich could have been a farmer, struggling to prevent his livestock from dying in the increasingly dry climate of East Africa's Great Rift Valley. He could have been a labourer, wandering the Kenyan countryside hunting for odd jobs, or the nearest city looking for trouble -- one of an estimated 10 million unemployed working-age youth in his country.

Instead, Rotich will be one of his village's most respected people -- a university graduate and high school teacher, with a background in accounting and business. It's a brighter future not just for the 23-year-old, but also for his whole community. That's why the members of Rotich's pastoral Kipsigis village, Emori Joi, pooled their resources to pay his tuition at Nairobi University.

Growing up in Canada, we dreamed of "snow days" when school would be cancelled. But when we first traveled overseas to tackle the issue of child labour, we were surprised when the children we met told us, "I dream of going to school." We quickly discovered the importance of education to young people like Rotich, to their families and their communities. We saw the sacrifices they made to put and keep their children in school, because they knew that education is the most powerful weapon against poverty and all of its symptoms.

For us in the West, it's hard to imagine life without education. But what if you couldn't read the words on a basic contract, write your name on a job application, or count the money you earn at work? Imagine no one in your community knew how to prevent your crops from failing, basic accounting to run a family business, or how to treat a common illness that was devastating your village.

For the 57 million primary-aged children around the world who aren't in school, this is their future. Some are needed at home to care for siblings, collect water, cook and tend livestock. Others must work outside the home as child labourers to bolster their family's income. Yet others simply live too far from the nearest school or can't afford to pay for a uniform or the necessary school fees. Whatever the reason, without access to an education, these children remain voiceless and the cycle of poverty continues.

But when children learn to read, write and count, they can participate in their community and contribute to its development. When they learn about history and social sciences, they can stand up for their rights and join in the political conversations of their community and country.

If they finish Grade 8 in rural Kenya, they can be a primary teacher, a village treasurer or community leader. If they finish high school, they can bring back the lessons they learn in sciences to improve crop yields or basic preventive health. If they make it to university like Bernard, they can transform their community as a high-school teacher, engineer or doctor.

That's why Rotich's family made sacrifices to pay his fees for high school, where he placed second in a class of 60. It's also why his village came together to send him to university. And it's why Free The Children replaced the overcrowded, mud-walled primary school in Emori Joi with a nine-classroom, brick-and-tin building with a kitchen and library--to empower the next generation of Bernard Rotiches with the tools to lift themselves and their community out of poverty, forever.

Since the United Nations made universal primary education a Millennium Development Goal in 2000, school enrolment in developing countries has risen to 90 per cent. But the most recent progress report shows that the annual external funding gap has grown to $26 billion -- six days of global military spending -- because of stalled contributions from the international community. Governments in both poor and rich countries are failing their commitment to giving every child a chance at a better life.

Meanwhile, Free The Children members around the world are rallying together for a "Year of Education" to build 200 new schools and classrooms -- in addition to the 650 we've already built since that first child told us, "I dream of going to school."

"Since we have a school, we have transformed ourselves," Rotich told us in Emori Joi during a recent break in his studies. "And we will transform our community, too." A good investment, indeed.

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


Education around the world