By Karen Kukla/ SUN contributing writer
Youth from the diocese are making a difference worldwide
CORTLAND — Like many fourth grade girls, Hanna Luber looked forward to spending Saturday with her friends, Jessie Bongiovanni and Laura Polacek. The students from Immaculate Conception School in Fayetteville were going to learn how to end poverty and stop child exploitation.
They were among 200 youth attending the second annual New York State Kids Can Free the Children (KCFTC) Conference April 13 at SUNY Cortland. Founded in 1995, KCFTC is the largest international human rights organization run solely by children. Its members, who are not old enough to vote in a school board election and some not old enough to drive, have collectively raised money to build hundreds of schools, purchased millions of dollars worth of medical supplies and spearheaded changes in legislation to protect children’s rights.
“Many times people think ‘I’m only one person,’ but we have to speak for the people who can’t speak for themselves,” explained conference planning committee member and Bishop Ludden High School student Kelly O’Donnell. “A lot of times you feel paralyzed with everything that is happening in the world, but we want kids to know that they can do something about it.”
It only took a month for Luber, Bongiovanni and Polacek to make a difference. After hearing a presentation by Maura Welch, president of the Syracuse chapter of KCFTC, the girls decided to take action.
“After Maura came to talk to us, we thought it would be a good idea to raise money,” Bongiovanni said. The girls organized an effort that netted 26 school supply/ health kits and raised $1,420.91. “Hanna came home one day and told me that she wanted to help children in other countries,” explained Hanna’s mother, Carrie Luber. “I didn’t know how far she would go, but she ran with it and talked to the teacher and principal, then spoke to each classroom. Then she went to the priest and spoke at every one of the Masses. She made the plans and then followed through.”
“Kids Can Free the Children didn’t start out to be an international organization,” said founder Craig Kielburger. On a Wednesday morning, when he was 12-years-old, Kielburger said he woke up and went downstairs to read the comics while he ate breakfast. “I was looking for the comic section and there was a picture of a 12-year-old boy from Pakistan who’d been murdered. I don’t know if it was because the boy was my age, but for some reason that picture caught my eye,” Kielburger said. “The boy had been sold into slavery and when he was 10-years-old he escaped and had traveled to other countries to tell his story. When he was 12 he came home to Pakistan where he was shot outside of his house.” He brought the article to school and invited his classmates over to learn more about the plight of children. Initial meetings were social events — a precursor to Saturday morning basketball, but as the group learned more about the problems faced by many children, the efforts took on a new direction to include fundraising and petitions, he said. The big break came later that year when Kielburger traveled to Asia and saw the lives of many children first-hand.
Through a turn of unexpected events, the issue of child labor became a topic of international outcry in Canada and thrust Kids Can Free the Children into the media spotlight. Since that time, the network has built more than 300 schools in 26 countries making it possible for 15,000 children to obtain an education, distributed more than 50,000 school/medical kits and more than $2 million in medical supplies and set up alternative income projects to help families free themselves from poverty and child labor.
“Locally New York State youth, including students from churches and schools within the diocese, presented Kielburger with more than $10,000 raised through sit-ins, dance-a-thons, car washes, candy sales and talent shows,” Maura Welch said. The event was organized by youth from the Syracuse, Southern Tier and Cincinnatus chapters of KCFTC. Student-led workshops looked at issues like world poverty, the reality of child labor in the United States, social factors contributing to child labor, the sexual exploitation of children, the North American Free Trade Agreement and Globalization. The group also heard from Kielburger and Director of Programs for KCFTC USA, Shelley Krupski. According to past Syracuse Chapter President Lee Navarro, KCFTC chapters are established within youth groups, among friends and in schools. Students research specific topics then inspire their peers to take action. “We want people to know that youth can make a different,” planning committee member Kerry Hanley explained. “A lot of people, a lot of the time feel paralyzed and we want to show kids that they can do something about what goes in this world.”
Dan Weber, a parishioner of St. Margaret’s Church in Homer and Joshua Capanzano a parishioner of St. Mary’s Church in Cortland, were attending the KCFTC conference for the first time. The boys planned to speak to their classmates at Homer School to raise awareness about the issue of child labor. As the original members graduate from high school and enter college, it’s up to a new generation to carry on the work that has already begun, Kielburger said. “Sometimes we feel what we do makes a small difference,” he said. “Never forget that you are part of a larger group working side-by-side. There is a proverb that says ‘When spider webs unite they can tie up a lion.’ Working alone we often feel like a single strand of a spider web. Together we can tie up a lion and change the world. That is the message. We are making a difference.”