Each time Mélodie Bouchard talks to students, she takes them on a journey around the world. As Youth Programming Manager for Free The Children (an international network of children helping other children), Bouchard works with local schools to raise awareness of the plight of children living in developing countries.
In each class, her challenge is the same: to show Canadian children, who grow up with so many privileges, what it is like to have nothing: no clean water, no access to schooling, no toys to play with or shoes to wear. At the same time, Bouchard doesn’t want to leave children feeling helpless, so her underlying message is always the same: every child can make a difference in the world, whether locally, nationally or internationally.
Bouchard makes presentations to elementary, high school and CEGEP students around Montreal. Thanks to a grant from the National Bank of Canada, the schools don’t have to pay for these talks. During a typical presentation, Bouchard often starts with something children are very familiar with such as eating a good breakfast.
“I ask them what they ate and what they enjoyed this morning,” she explains. Then she talks about Mercy, a girl growing up in Kenya. Mercy only has a cup of tea for breakfast. When she can go to school — which isn’t often because her family needs her to work — the school building is just a dusty hut. By this time, Bouchard notes, the kids are usually very worried and saddened by what they have heard. Then she gets to the central message: that there is something they can do.
“I talk about how Free The Children was started by a boy like them,” she says. In fact, the organization was created in 1995 by a then 12-year-old Canadian named Craig Kielburger. Shocked by a story he read of a Pakistani boy forced to work in rug-making factory, Craig began raising funds to help fight child labour. Today, Free The Children works in India, Kenya, China, Ecuador, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka to build schools and improve life in villages.
Bouchard notes that about 60 per cent of the Free The Children’s budget comes from fundraising projects created and run by children. “I talk to the kids about what small things they can do, like making and selling pieces of origami or selling handmade bracelets. The goal is to make them feel that they are powerful and they can make a difference.”
However, rather than encourage kids to “think big” for their fundraisers (such as organizing a concert or a student fashion show), Bouchard talks about the impact small steps can have. For example, she notes that first and second graders at Roslyn School in Westmount sold little origami frogs for 25 cents each. Eventually they raised $68, which can go a long way in a developing country.
While Free The Children’s focus is helping children overseas, the speakers also remind students of the importance of bringing change to their own community. For example, Bouchard talks about how she was bullied at school and how lonely she felt. She asks students to do something nice that day for someone else. She also encourages them to pass along the story of Mercy by talking about it to others and to think about small ways they can contribute to making the world a better place.
“The children are thrilled about the idea of helping someone,” she says. “They’re not like adults who worry about failing. These kids feel that they can have an impact.”
Free The Children offers various ways for kids to get involved. For example, fundraising can be used to build a school or to adopt a village and improve life for its residents by having homes built, wells dug and heath care provided.
“Our approach is never to leave kids feeling like the world is bad place,” Bouchard says. “It’s to empower them so they can feel happy and excited about doing something.”
For information on Free The Children speakers, call (514) 878-3733. Its website, www.freethechildren.com has information for schools and families about the needs of children in developing countries and what people can do to help.