04/17/2013 05:08 EDT | Updated 06/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Teaching Kids What Hunger Really Feels Like

My son, Derrick was one of thousands of Canadian youth who went without food for 30 hours this past weekend, as part of World Vision's 30 Hour Famine. In school hallways and church basements from Toronto to Medicine Hat, kids banded together to put up posters, plan activities, and talk about what hunger feels like.

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Poor children in Ethiopia with outstretched hands asking for money. Some unrecognizable persons.

On Friday afternoon, my 11-year-old son came home from school. He handed me an overdue permission form, swatted his little brother for simply being there, and gave a one-word answer to my question about his French test. All fairly standard for an adolescent kid.

But then Derrick did something pretty extraordinary. Although he's growing about an inch a month these days (and has the appetite to prove it), my normally ravenous son walked right past the kitchen without making an after-school snack. An hour later, I drove him to our church to spend Friday night and all day Saturday fasting with his buddies.

Derrick was one of thousands of Canadian youth who went without food for 30 hours this past weekend, as part of World Vision's 30 Hour Famine. In school hallways and church basements from Toronto to Medicine Hat, kids banded together to put up posters, plan activities, and talk about what hunger feels like. They wanted to do two things:

  • Understand, really understand, what it's like to be hungry
  • Raise money for children overseas for whom hunger is a way of life

Doing something extraordinary

Sound nothing like the teenage kids you know? Look a little closer, says World Vision Canada's Genevieve Handler Barber.

"Many young Canadians are incredibly passionate about helping," she says. "They see what's on the news. They know that kids in other places are growing up with challenges they could never imagine facing themselves. And every year, we see thousands of young Canadians stepping forward to do something about it."

As Derrick and his friends begun their 30 Hour Famine Friday, a high school group in Edmonton was close to ending theirs. I caught 17-year-old Mumtahin Monzoor on the phone, as she finished up homework in her physics classroom. Although it was technically "lunch hour" at school, Mumtahin took care to avoid the tempting smells of the cafeteria.

"By the end, you're so tired that you almost stop feeling hungry," she said. Mumtahin started the Famine in her school last year, and still plays a key part in running the event. With a goal of $3,000, this meant advertising for weeks ahead of time, motiving youth in her school to fundraise and helping plan activities to keep them busy during their fast. She even mentored a younger student to take over her role next year, after she graduates.

"I'm proud to be a part of the Famine," she says. "It makes me feel like I'm part of something larger, something important."

Time to play, time to think

I was so impressed with Mumtahin, just as I was with Ned Kelly, a boy who came to join the Famine at our church without knowing a soul. He spent all night Friday and all day Saturday with a bunch of strangers, without so much as a pepperoni pizza to break the ice.

"A friend at school once did the 30 Hour Famine, and I really wanted to be a part of one. So my mom Googled for a Famine online, and found this one close to us. It was pretty cool."

By all accounts, our Famine was pretty cool. The kids heard from a guest speaker who works in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He shared stories about the desperate need of children there, and what a difference the Famine can make by funding projects to help them. There was a midnight pillow fight, a car wash on Saturday, time to play games, time to sing together, and time for quiet prayer. And lots of time to think about children for whom the famine never ends.

"It would be hard to just never be free of hunger," said my son Derrick afterward. "To always think 'Oh, maybe I'll go have a snack', then realize that you couldn't. I feel really sorry for those kids."

Getting your kids involved

So what if you're reading this, and thinking: "My kid would really love do to this?" Or perhaps it's more like "I'd really love my kid to care enough to do this?" Here are some suggestions:

  • Help your kids discover real-life stories of need. Take them to web sites like World Vision's, which share stories of children and youth from all around the world. "People need to understand what's happening and why, before they can start to care enough to do something about it," says student Mumtahin Monzoor.
  • Ask your kids' opinions about the daily news. Whether it's drought in West Africa or earthquake recovery in Haiti, chances are that your kids are already covering some of it in their social studies classes. They often have thoughts of their own to share. It's these conversations that often kindle the passion to help.
  • Go to parent council meetings at your school, advises Mumtahin. "Say you'd like to see your kids more involved in making a difference. Many young people care enough to join something like the 30 Hour Famine, they just don't care enough to start something on their own. If the school can get something going, people will be interested."
  • Help your kids find a Famine group in the area. If there's no group at your school or church, you can show your support like Ned's mom did, by helping them find one. Visit the 30 Hour Famine website for details.
  • Get a few families together to do the Famine. Plan activities, watch movies, and break the fast with a big dinner at the end. "It's easier when you're with people who are all giving up their meals," advises my son Derrick.
  • If your son or daughter does show an interest in starting a Famine that's great news! The 30 Hour Famine website is packed with help on ways to do it. "They make it really easy for you," said Derrick, after sending his 'thank you' notes to those who sponsored him with one click on the Famine web site.
  • Give up food, or something else. Some groups this year gave up furniture, to understand what it's like to sleep on a hard floor. Others gave up electronic devices. Talk about sacrifice!
  • Do the Famine any time. Although many groups did the 30 Hour Famine last weekend, you can do it at any time of year. Visit the Famine website.
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