Children throughout the world face enormous challenges. One third of all kids today will never go to school. Millions cannot read or write. Tens of millions go without basic drinking water, a proper diet, or health care. Many of these children still work for low pay in horrible conditions.
Yet these challenges haven’t prevented 13 year-old author, fundraiser and UNICEF Canada Children’s Ambassador Bilaal Rajan from making a difference in the lives of children.
When I first learned of him three years ago, I was extremely impressed by how articulate and committed he is to the cause of child rights and equality around the world, and his obligation to making the world a better place for disadvantaged kids – whether through traveling to the developing world to meet disadvantaged children to understand their plight or working to raise funds for them back in Canada in ever-more creative ways.
Bilaal became involved when he was only four years old. A devastating earthquake ravaged the province of Gujarat in India in January 2001. His parents were reading a newspaper story about the event and told him about a priest from his religious community who, tragically enough, died in the rubble. Bilaal immediately thought of how different – and how much more difficult - his life would be without parents.
Bilaal happened to be eating a clementine orange at that time, and suggested he could help out by selling them door-to-door in his suburban Toronto neighbourhood to raise funds for those in Gujurat. With at least one parent alongside him at all times, he set out on his mission in the frozen Canadian winter. Some people said “no,” but others said “yes,” and he managed to raise $350, which seemed like a fortune to him at the time. It was a small start, but Bilaal was onto something.
|Bilaal with Children in Malawi
He later sold handmade acrylic plates to raise $1,200 for HIV/AIDS orphans, helped build a school in Tanzania for HIV/AIDS orphans, sold cookie boxes to raise over $6,000 for the affected people and children of Hurricane-devastated Haiti, raised $50,000 for the victims of the Tsunami in South-East Asia, as well as more than $50,000 for the World Partnership Walk, which CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) later matched dollar for dollar.
In 2004, Bilaal issued a UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge (www.unicef.ca), urging Canadian children to raise a minimum of $100 each to achieve a total goal of $1 million. He also made a personal pledge to raise $10,000. By the end, Bilaal and his team raised a total of $50,000 and as a result, in January 2005, the Toronto District School Board presented him and UNICEF with a cheque for $1.3 million. The Government of Canada then matched this, making the final donation nearly $4 million.
In addition, Bilaal reached out to more than fifty major corporations by phone and letter. APOTEX, a leading pharmaceutical company, donated prescription medicine worth $342,700 for the cause. Heinz Canada donated over 2,000 cases of baby food and Loblaws (supermarket) and Shoppers Drug Mart responded to his appeal with gift certificates.
To date, Bilaal’s efforts have raised millions of dollars for various children’s causes.
Bilaal later founded an organization (www.bilaalrajan.com) in 2004 to heighten awareness of children’s issues and raise millions of dollars to help kids in need all over the world. His main goal is to have one million young Canadians get involved over the next three years and raise funds for children’s programs themselves.
|Bilaal with Friends in Ecuador
In addition, Bilaal became a UNICEF Canada children’s ambassador in 2005, and traveled to Malawi, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives to see personally how the funds he helped raise were making a difference. He met with hundreds of children, program organizers and dignitaries, including the President of the Maldives.
Bilaal wanted to share these experiences with other people. Last year he wrote and published a book called Making Change: Tips from an Underage Overachiever (www.makingchangenow.com, Orca Book Publishers, October 2008). He wanted them to learn how possible – and how much fun – it really is to make a difference in the world.
But most importantly, he wanted to show people that no matter who you are, where you’re from, what language you speak, or what your age, you can change the world. Bilaal held the launch of his new book at his school, St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario. I had the pleasure of watching him speak in front of more than 300 students, teachers and other invited guests.
To promote the book, Bilaal has been interviewed by dozens of newspapers, magazines, radio and television shows, including City Pulse News, Global Television, the Toronto Sun, OMNI News, CBC radio, the Toronto Star, A-TV in Barrie, Ontario, and Asian Connection. He has also spoke to organizations such as URISA Canada, FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance USA, Indo-Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Haitian and Indonesian communities of Toronto, Canada.
Bilaal specifically enjoys speaking to young people at schools throughout Canada, promoting the Trick or Treat for UNICEF program that raises funds to build schools for children in Africa. While speaking to tens of thousands of people, especially youth, Bilaal helps raise awareness about children’s issues and inspires others to get involved in helping others throughout the world.
Bilaal has also traveled to countries throughout the world to spread the message. Two summers ago, he volunteered for a month in Tanzania and held HIV/AIDS workshops with young people, some of whom had lost mothers and fathers to the disease.
|With Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa
As a selected participant in Governor General Michaelle Jean's Order of Canada Mentorship Program, he traveled to Ecuador in August 2008 to help build a school. In addition, Bilaal went to Mexico to help install solar powered LED lights in the village of El Coyote, which was inspired by an award-winning science fair project he completed for school. The lights allowed young students in El Coyote to stay up later to read and complete their homework. They were also no longer forced to use the old kerosene lights, which can cause health problems and are potential fire hazards.
Bilaal has recently established an endowment fund at his middle school from the advance of his book. Each year, a student who completes the greatest number of hours of community volunteer service receives a special award provided by the endowment fund and is recognized by his or her teachers and principal at graduation. The award has inspired students at Bilaal’s school to become fundraisers themselves, and some of them have raised hundreds of dollars for charities in their own right.
Based on this success, he will soon be starting a similar Youth Volunteer Program across Canada. His ambitious goal is to establish a youth volunteer award program in each and every middle school across the country within two years.
Bilaal is also starring in his own online radio show that will begin shortly. It will provide a platform for youth who are active in making a difference in their communities and around the world. He is also in the process of starting “Making Change Clubs” at schools throughout North America.
Bilaal’s latest global initiative, the Barefoot Challenge, saw him live life without shoes for seven days during National Volunteer Week, from April 19 to 25, 2009. Thousands of young people from more than 25 countries around the world kicked off their shoes to better understand the struggles faced by poor children in underdeveloped countries, many of whom cannot afford shoes, let alone other basic necessities. Throughout the week, Bilaal participated in more than 50 radio, TV, newspaper and magazine interviews, helping to raise awareness about child poverty in the Global South.
Sudokuhub is Bilaal’s newest project. It is a website (www.sudokuhub.com) where users can play Sudoku, the brainteaser that is quickly taking the place of crossword puzzles as everyone’s favourite game. Unlike other online Sudoku sites, users play to win UNICEF Plumpy’nut® packages, which feed malnourished children throughout the world. Bilaal and his partner are planning for Sudokuhub.com to be the premier destination website for Sudoku players worldwide.
Most recently, Bilaal met personally with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, where they discussed upcoming initiatives and ways in which young people can become more empowered to take action on important global issues. Bilaal also spoke to school children and various charitable organizations.
Bilaal’s projects are based on new ways of thinking, activism and participation, the exact kind of format that young people respond to and enjoy participating in. Already, Bilaal’s initiatives such as the Barefoot Challenge and the Youth Volunteer Program have been shown to engage students throughout Canada and the world. Others, such as Sudokubub.com, are currently accessible to the hundreds of millions of active web users.
Bilaal is a young Canadian who will make a difference and influence others to get involved well into the future, not only here, but throughout the world. As he likes to say, “Together, we can make a difference.”