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Free the children has been announced as Audley's charity for 2016. Founder Craig Burkinshaw explains how the company became involved with this extraordinary organization.

I have been passionate about the positive effects that high quality tourism can have since founding Audley. So when I received a call from my friend Amanda last year, enthusing about the work of Craig Kielburger and his Free the Children (FTC) initiative and insisting I should meet him, I was intrigued.

Started by a group of 12 year olds

During our meeting I discovered that Free the Children have development projects running in eight countries from Sierra Leone and Gabon to Nicaragua and India. It was overwhelming and hard to comprehend, particularly when I considered that this had all been started by a group of 12-year-olds in an ordinary school in Toronto, who, having learned about child slavery, resolved to really do something about it.

The Order of Canada for pioneering work

At the beginning the organization grew rapidly. TV interviews with Craig exposed child slavery and labour issues in Pakistan, just as the Canadian government was about to sign an historic trade deal with that country. That episode proved deeply embarrassing for the government, who just a few years later, awarded Craig and his brother Marc the Order of Canada (equivalent to a UK OBE) for their pioneering work. They were the youngest people in Canada ever to receive this honour.

We Day, Vancouver
We Day, Vancouver
Prince Harry at We Day
Prince Harry at We Day

We Days

Other young people were inspired to get involved and there are now 8,000 clubs in Canadian schools started and run by pupils who are all engaged in social issues and fundraising. Free the Children run stadium-sized events — We Days — every year celebrating social action in the pursuit of large scale drives against bullying, homelessness and child labor. Additionally, the charity have a social enterprise which turns over millions of dollars, generating more funds for their projects.

How the organization evolved

When Kielburger invited me to Africa to see the results of the organization’s work for myself; I agreed on the spot. It was the perfect opportunity for me to get into the finer detail and to see how things actually worked on the ground. Our lodgings at Bogani Cottages, in the heart of the Masai Mara, were a pleasant surprise — in a shady safari style camp with wonderful food and equally wonderful staff. The camp itself was run as a business which helped to generate funds for the organization.

Over the next four days I discovered how the present day organization had evolved. From humble beginnings in the mid ’90s, with the children holding meetings in their parents’ houses, much had changed. The first initiatives led to raids on factories that used child slave labor, however they soon realized that this didn’t solve the underlying problem; the same six-year-olds were found on later raids, tied to carpet looms in much the same circumstances. The strategy then rapidly developed into a much more considered and methodological, long-term approach to tackling poverty.

Bogani Cottages, Kenya
Bogani Cottages, Kenya
Guided visit to a homestead from Bogani cottages and tented camp , Free the Children
Guided visit to a homestead from Bogani Cottages, Kenya

African Education

Education was seen as the primary route to progress and this initiated the building of schools. This alone didn’t significantly raise attendance and reduce dropout rates. Boys’ attendance was better than that of girls, primarily due to cultural biases but very few children made it to the end of primary education which would be around the age of 14. The girls in particular, were often pulled away to carry out domestic chores such as fetching water but the boys fared little better. 

Often after walking many miles, the children would find their classrooms flooded by monsoon rains or that their teachers had not turned up. When classes did run, many of the children would struggle to concentrate simply because they hadn’t eaten that day. Teachers were hard to retain because they didn’t have a decent place to live, so often they returned to the cities. All difficult problems to overcome.

Children staying in education has wider effects. The things they learn about — nutrition, leadership, sanitation — reinforce and drive change.

Practical solutions to the issues

Undeterred, FTC looked for practical solutions to these issues. Wells were sunk next to the schools to allow the girls to take clean water home after class; solid houses were built for teachers to make it more appealing for them to stay; vegetable gardens were planted around the schools and the vegetables used for school meals and as the basis for lessons in nutrition. A small charge for water was made so that the wells could be maintained. 

Families could then start to plant their own vegetable gardens and sell their surplus crops. Traditional savings and loans systems were expanded to create more small businesses, for example, goats for milking, beehives for honey and traditional crafts for export. FTC was now growing rapidly and with this in mind, the brothers decided to study for Oxford law degrees and Harvard MBAs to broaden their skills to equip themselves to run what was now an international organization.

Watch the Maasai children perform a traditional dance, Me to We Kenya
Maasai children performing a traditional dance, Kenya
Walking with the Maasai warriors, Me to We Kenya
Walking with the Maasai warriors

Reducing instances of child mortality

From absolutely nothing, over 650 schools and school buildings have been built, 30,000 women are now economically self-sufficient and over one million people have been provided with clean water, healthcare and sanitation in Kenya, Haiti, Ecuador, Sierra Leone, Gabon, Nicaragua, China and India. Furthermore, children staying in education has wider, deeper effects. Girls who are well educated often marry later and are more informed about health practices, thus reducing instances of child mortality.

Learning about nutrition, disease, leadership and sanitation reinforces and drives change. Formerly reticent parents gradually come on board after seeing the positive changes and often now actively encourage their daughters to apply for places at secondary school. If this all sounds just a bit utopian, I would encourage you to visit Kenya, India or Ecuador and see it for yourself. From conversations I have had with clients over many years I know that this is an experience that many will find exceptionally interesting and inspiring. 

Going international

Once back in the UK I was eager to share my experiences with friends and colleagues. I always like to check out my understanding and perceptions and I had read independent reports on the organization to substantiate my view that what I had seen was truly progressive and sustainable. 

Then, one winter morning, I received an email from Craig Kielburger and his brother Marc asking if I would consider joining the UK board and I immediately agreed. Enthused and excited, my partner Joanne and I were soon on a Seattle bound flight to experience our very first ‘We Day’, our trip also coinciding with the first ever US event.

Richard Branson at We Day
Richard Branson at We Day
Craig Kielburger and Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai and Craig Kielburger

Microsoft had joined FTC as a major sponsor for the Seattle event and would also be sponsoring FTC schools programs throughout Washington state for the coming year. Bill Gates’ parents came to dinner with us the night before the event and this marked the beginning of the organization’s relationship with the Gates Foundation.

The next morning, 20,000 young people arrived in the iconic yellow school buses from all over the state — what an amazing sight! Mia Farrow, Al Gore and Martin Sheen all spoke passionately alongside an escaped child soldier from the Congo and blind schoolgirl Molly Burke who had been a victim of relentless bullying. Major North American pop acts were interspersed with speeches. Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Branson, the Dalai Lama, Dr Jane Goodall and Kofi Annan have all spoken at previous ‘We Days’.

From absolutely nothing, over 650 schools and school buildings have been built, 30,000 women are now economically self-sufficient and over one million people have been provided with clean water, healthcare and sanitation.

Araveli Cottages and Tented Camp, Rajasthan

A couple of months after this event, Joanne and I flew to Udaipur in India with Marc Kielburger, to visit FTC projects in rural Rajasthan and to see Araveli, a wonderful new property built by Free the Children's business arm to host visitors to the projects. Once again, we were covering our own costs. Araveli offers visitors an amazing place to stay in rural Rajasthan and is luxurious in the sense that it incorporates a vast array of traditional design and decoration, which in turn helps keep ancient skills alive.

The contrasts between villages where FTC projects had been completed and those where things were just beginning were quite dramatic. FTC buys supplies directly from local markets and directly employs local builders to do the construction work to avoid money being siphoned off by corruption. Projects here typically last three years and are then taken over by the local community who take full responsibility for the infrastructure, finances and the future of the project. Whilst FTC do continue to stay in contact with these projects, it is in an interested and supportive, rather than a controlling role.

A new three year development project

Joanne and I have enjoyed extensive travels across India over a number of years and our time there has inspired us to finance a full three year development project for another local community, Verdara, with a population of 1,140 people. It is worth pointing out that FTC do not impose themselves on communities. The community often approaches the charity directly and must make a significant commitment to the project in terms of their own time and effort before FTC agree to become involved. Demand far outstrips supply, so the process is essentially competitive and this can have some positive effects.

Cottage interior
Interior of Araveli Cottages
Araveli tented camp

Charity begins at home

Back in the UK, FTC were planning the first UK We Day. Michael Gove (Education Secretary at the time), spoke at the press launch and Barclays and Virgin Atlantic volunteered to sponsor both the event and the associated initiatives running in schools. Sixteen thousand young people attended, all of whom had earned their tickets by taking action -you can’t buy a ticket to ‘We Day’, you have to earn it.

Speakers at the event included Al Gore, Clive Owen and Richard Branson. Prince Harry also spoke and received a rapturous welcome but the highlight for me was the speech given by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban after bravely ignoring their decree that girls should not attend school. She is a powerful and impassioned speaker who encapsulates the whole ethos and purpose of Free the Children.

Since March 2015, Joanne and I have visited projects in the Ecuadorian Amazon and have taken a group of friends back with us to Bogani in Kenya. The Nobel Peace Prize was also awarded to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi. Free The Children’s first ever action was a petition to free Kailash from prison after he was detained for his fight against child labor. This then inspired FTC’s first ever project to fund Bal Ashram, the rehabilitation center set up by Kailash to house the children rescued from slavery.

Today, millions of young people are actively involved in 5,500 Canadian, 1,550 US and over 1,000 UK schools. We Day has arrived in California and Minnesota and the second UK event is due to take place this month.

How you can get involved

If I have sparked your interest and you would like to experience one of the projects first-hand, then a four day (three night) stay, or longer in the Ecuadorian Amazon, India or East Africa can be incorporated into an Audley journey to one of these destinations.

Monkeys, Amazon

Minga Lodge, Ecuador

A stay at the Minga Lodge offers a unique opportunity to get to grips with what life is really like in the Amazon. Culturally, this is far more in-depth, interactive and rewarding than a regular Amazon visit and allows you to spend time with the local community during your stay.

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