Jan. 13-19, 2005
The Little Children of the World
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
CBA Student Received Global Action Award
While many teens spend their school breaks and summers traveling to vacation spots or playing sports, Maura Welch, a sophomore at Christian Brothers Academy, travels to India, Peru, Ecuador or Mexico. An advocate for child labor laws since fifth grade, Maura travels to Third World countries to bring attention to abhorrent working conditions and the fact that children, often as young as three years old, are working 12 to 14 hours a day for just pennies.
On Dec. 2, 2004, Maura received the Global Action Award from NetAid, a non-profit organization that educates, inspires and empowers young people to take action against global poverty. One of four honorees from across the country, Maura was recognized for her excellent leadership for standing up for the rights of child laborers around the world. Maura’s multi-faceted approach includes fundraising and educating others. She has started a chapter of Kids Can Free the Children at St. Vincent de Paul Church, raised thousands of dollars for children in poor countries, spoken at over 100 small and large venues, met personally with child laborers, organized a youth conference on child labor and created a youth newsletter on the topic.
Maura became aware of the working conditions in Third World countries when her father, Paul Welch, director of Basic Needs for Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, told her about a one-day United Nations sponsored conference called Student Conference for Human Rights. “A group from Albany was going and my dad drove me up there and put me on the bus with 15 other students,” said Maura. “The workshop I attended on child labor inspired me.” That was five years ago. Maura met a young man named Craig Kielburger who, at the age of 12, founded an organization called Free the Children. The organization is an international network of children helping children through leadership, representation and action. Free the Children is active in 45 countries, protecting and meeting the basic needs of children. The organization has raised funds to build 375 primary schools, provided education to 30,000 children, distributed more than 175,000 school and health kits and shipped $6 million of medical supplies to children in developing countries.
“What started as an organization of classmates who wanted to make a difference, grew to 100,000 people,” said Maura. “I thought that if that many people could get involved, I could too.” Maura’s social conscience has been ingrained in her since she was young. “I heard about it all my life. My parents are always discussing social injustice happening around the world.” When Maura heard about Free the Children, she recognized it as an opportunity to make a difference. She gave her first speech about child labor to religious education classes at St. Therese Church in Syracuse. From there, Maura started speaking at other schools and churches about what she had learned. In 2000, she attended a leadership academy in Toronto sponsored by Free the Children where teens from all over the world met to discuss world issues.
“We raised $3,500 at St. Vincent de Paul to build a school in Tanzania,” said Maura. “At CBA, we raised another $3,500 to build a school in Ecuador.” Fundraising is a large part of the work that Maura and her peers do as ambassadors for the poor. They also initiate writing campaigns and petition government officials and big corporations who are known to use child labor. “Disney, Nike and Wal-Mart are the three biggest corporations that use child laborers to make their products,” said Maura. “But boycotting them is not the answer. If you stop buying products from the companies, they will close down the factories and the children will be left with no work at all. It’s better to educate – both the children and the companies. Educate the children by building schools and educate the companies by making them aware that their practices aren’t right.” Maura said boycotting is the answer only when it’s called for – if working conditions are so terrible that nothing else will work. In 2001, Maura traveled to Colonia, Mexico with the New York State Religion Coalition (NYSRC). In addition to building schools and churches in Mexico, the NYSRC is monitoring working conditions and campaigning to allow unions into the sweatshops. “A lot of companies from the U.S. moved their factories right over the border for cheaper labor,” said Maura. “Because of NAFTA and free trade, the sweatshops have taken over valuable farm land.”
While in Mexico, Maura visited neighborhood communities where there was no electricity, running water or paved roads. Homes consisted of pieces of cardboard and other substances haphazardly held together. “What shocked me the most about Colonia was that it was set in a garbage dump,” said Maura. “People lived off what they found in the dump. They can’t afford to travel to find work. The smell and the smoke were overwhelming. I can’t imagine how those people live there all of their lives.” “Colonia was built on trash, but in the middle of all that trash, the people had built a one-room church. Three small children grabbed my arm when I got out of the vehicle to show me this church that they were so proud of.”
In the summer of 2003, Maura and her family spent three weeks in Peru and three weeks in Ecuador. There they witnessed children as young as three or four selling postcards or hand puppets for a few cents a day. “Their whole family works 12 to 14 hours a day selling postcards just to make enough money to eat that day.” Many of the children don’t go to school even though in Cozco, there are soup kitchens and free schools available through the sponsorship of area hotels.
“My mom, who speaks fluent Spanish, sat down and talked with some of the child laborers,” said Maura. “We asked the street children why they weren’t in school. They told us that the free schools were for poor kids. They don’t consider themselves poor because they have work and they have family. They don’t consider themselves at the lowest point of poverty because they have family,” said Maura. When Maura received a call from the president of NetAid telling her she had won the award, she was not only excited but also gratified. “It made me realize that people care about what I’m doing,” said Maura. It also made her realize that kids can make a difference. “I learned that five years ago and it changed my life. We can make such an impact in the world if we just start thinking about other people and not just ourselves.”