2004 Global Action Awards
Over the past five years, Maura Welch, a 16-year-old activist from New York, has been spreading awareness about the issue of child labor, and raising money to build schools and fund child labor rehabilitation centers. She started a local chapter of Kids Can Free the Children, an international network of young people working to free children from poverty and exploitation. The organization helps to empower children to bring about positive social change to improve the lives of their peers. She has helped to open the door to education to impoverished and exploited children by raising funds to build schools in Latin America and Africa. Isisara Bey, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Sony BMG Music, had this to say about Maura: "She hasn't told us what to do. She hasn't changed us through some intellectual concept. She has walked the path that anyone else can clearly follow. That's a leader."
MY HERO asked Maura to talk about what prompted her to take action to help child laborers and become a champion of children's rights:
Five years ago when I was 11 years old, I heard about a conference at the United Nations called the Student Human Rights Conference. My dad put me on a bus with other students who were also going. I met 100 kids from all over the United States who were taking action on the issue of child labor, so ever since then, I have been really interested.
I traveled to Peru and Mexico and actually met these children who work 14-18 hours a day in factories with horrible lighting. They get paid hardly anything. If they are lucky, they will get $.05 an hour. And there are also a lot of kids whose families are so poor that they have to work on the family farm too, so there are a lot of problems.
|Maura Welch meets Senator Hillary Clinton during Global Campaign for Education Action Week|
Photo from www.nysut.org
As an activist committed to restoring the dignity of exploited children and helping them realize their basic human rights, Maura shared with MY HERO the specific actions she has taken to help child laborers:
Two main things Iíve done. The first is to raise money to build schools because it is believed the only way to end child labor is to educate these children and their families so that they will have another option. The other part to this is spreading awareness because there are so many people who donít know anything about child labor. I do this by just giving a ton of speeches to schools and churches and whoever is willing to listen.
When asked what is the most important thing these children can learn in the schools that she is helping to build, Maura responded:
In the schools that I am helping to build, I hope that the children there can learn that they definitely have a future and they can make a difference, and that they can become a doctor or a teacher. That would just be amazing.
MY HERO was curious if Maura had gotten any feedback from the kids she has helped. She was excited to share the response she has received from them and their ongoing dialog:
Yes, definitely. Iíve stayed in contact with a lot of the places that I have sent money to. I have heard from a lot of the kids from the schools I have helped build. They write letters back to me thanking me...and [we're] just kind of like pen pals keeping in touch. So it is very cool.
Maura's fund-raising efforts to help build schools and spread awareness about child labor is inspiring. MY HERO asked her how much money she has raised as a result of her efforts:
|A new school built in Ecuador through the efforts of Free the Children|
Photo from www.freethechildren.org
I have had a couple of school building projects, one with my school where we raised $3,500 and another one with my church where we raised about $3,500 also. And then in all of New York State we have an organization, it is a worldwide organization called Kids Can Free the Children. It is a youth organization [dedicated to] combatting child labor. All of the groups in New York State (there are about 10) have come together to raise money now and we have raised about $30,000 over the past two years.
Maura's response to MY HERO's question about what she has learned from these kids was immediate:
Oh, wow, definitely. I have learned so much. I have learned how fortunate I am to have so much and also these kids that Iíve met when I have gone and met these children in Peru and Mexico, I went there thinking that they are going to be sad, they have hardly anything, they are living in poverty, but it was the complete opposite. These kids were always happy, they were always positive. They were so thankful for what they did have and whatever they had they were sharing with everyone. So I have definitely learned that lesson and how fortunate I am and not to take things for granted.
|Children attending class at their new school in a village in Ecuador|
Photo from www.freethechildren.org
An activist committed to making a difference in the world, Maura has a message for kids in America about getting involved:
All of the kids in the United States especially are blessed with so much and we should definitely use the power that we have, because kids can make a difference. We have the power to change the world and we need to start now!
In terms of the bigger issues like poverty, Maura recognizes the cycle of cause and effect and shares the belief that by improving the lives of children one life at a time, each small act, no matter how big or small will help to address the bigger issues:
It is all linked. Poverty causes child laborÖitís kind of a whole cycle, so yeah. Poverty is such a huge issue to tackle, so I would probably start with smaller things such as child labor, school and education.
It came as no surprise when Maura told MY HERO who her heroes and role models are:
My main heroes are the kids I have met. They are the ones who inspire me everyday to do what I have done. And these children who are actually child laborers, everything they have gone through has inspired me. Theyíd definitely be my heroes.