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By Leila Porteous '02
When Meghan Foley '02 was a child, she was told that she could save the world-when she grew up. But her attitude was, why wait? Kyle Kreiss '04 agrees. "Youth are the leaders of today," he said.
Who do these students think they are? For one thing they are two of about two dozen members of a new student group at Colby that is leading a global initiative to raise young people's awareness about war-affected kids. The Colby-based project, Youth Ambassadors for Peace, is part of the decade-long United Nations Free the Children initiative. It began here when Jonathan White, visiting instructor of sociology, was named director of Youth Ambassadors for Peace by Free the Children, which is run by children of the world.
Charged with launching Free the Children's new campaign, White's next move was to recruit help. Colby student activists were eager to sign on after they heard about Free the Children's 100,000 members (all under 18 in more than 30 countries), who had already tackled issues like child labor, poverty and hunger and had sent 15,000 kids to school in underdeveloped countries around the world.
The Colby group's task: to do behind-the-scenes work for Free the Children's next big project, titled "War Is Not a Game." The campaign asks children to turn in war toys. For each toy turned in, sponsors donate money toward building schools in a post-conflict zone.
Last fall, each Colby student became an expert on one of 10 countries affected by war or one of five issues that plague each of those countries. They were assisted by Shelley Krupski, director of programs for Free the Children (and White's fiancée), who met the group and found an abundance of energy. "What I gave was a little bit of organization," Krupski said. Her request: that students devote 10 hours a week to research and to check in with her weekly.
Though still a work in progress, the Youth Ambassadors for Peace Project Web site (built at Colby) is already a considerable resource. With such information as an explanation of the conflict in Uganda by Erin Bodner '03 and other students' research, the site (http://www.freethechildren.org/peace/) serves up "the most inclusive pieces out there on the topic," White said.
Materials include a packet by Julie Brown '03 explaining how to run a campaign, write a press release and speak in front of large groups. Graphics by Adam Saltsman '04 serve as posters that students can download, print and post to publicize their school's Free the Children events.
Another component of the project at Colby-and the real highlight, say the students-has been the opportunity to go to Maine schools to talk to younger students about these issues. "It feels like a culmination of [our] work," Saltsman said. "It feels nice when [it] all pays off."
In fact, the demands of the project's youth outreach effort became so great that Foley set aside research on the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to focus on scheduling talks. But she says it was worth the sacrifice: "I love to watch [kids'] eyes get all big . . . get so excited . . . [and to hear them say,] 'All I need to do is go and tell a friend what I just heard, and that's going to make a difference.'"
But with gritty issues like land mines and rape as a weapon of war, how do Colby students convey harsh realities in a kid-friendly manner? "Not that hard," said Kristen Heim '03, an expert on both topics. "I'm really into kids. But it is difficult to know where to draw the line. On one hand, it's okay if a kid cries, but total disillusionment is not the goal. We want kids to know that the world still is a good place."
The younger students have listened, and Maine has become a stronghold for Free the Children, Kreiss said.
Excitement among the Youth Ambassadors for Peace is running high at Colby. But as the project gathers momentum, it approaches a defining crossroads. In May, White's contract as a two-year replacement in sociology will end, and he will take the U.N. charter for the project with him. But the majority of Colby students involved in the process say they're in it for the long haul.
"There will always be a part of it here," Kreiss said. "There are just too many people involved, and too many people who care about it to let it go entirely." He says the Colby group has a base and contacts. "And [we] kind of have that responsibility, too, I think," Kreiss said.
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