Free The Children is being funded by an organization he cofounded with his brother, Marc—the Me to We. But what he is most proud of is that his organization’s board is led by people under 18 years old.
Iqbal Masih’s Story
After reading the story of a 12-year-old Pakistani named Iqbal Masih who was shot for his activism against child slavery, Craig has launched an all-out war to put a stop to such a barbaric practice. Iqbal himself was a victim. Sold for 12 dollars when he was four years old to help fund his brother’s wedding, Iqbal was subjected to harsh labor for six years until he escaped with the help of a human rights’ organization. He’s then sent to school and became the face of child slavery.
But his promising life was cut short when he was brutally shot. Up to now, the perpetrator is yet to be identified. Even though Iqbal’s death remains to be a mystery, it made a profound impression on another 12-year-old kid coming from the other part of the globe.
Craig’s Early Biography
Fred and Theresa Kielburger are both teachers. They have two boys—Marc and Craig. Marc is five years older than their second son, Craig, who was born on 17 December 1982 in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. Both boys know of their mother’s difficult life. For a time, her family was homeless. So each time Theresa would see a beggar, she always spent time to talk to them and goes out of her way to help. Fred, on the other hand, would lay down the newspaper on the kitchen table for everyone to read including his young boys. It didn’t matter that the broadsheet was oftentimes laden with heinous crimes. Such has been the practice at the Kielburgers’ home since time immemorial.
This opened Craig’s eyes to issues of global concern. It also helped that their parents used to be activists in their own right, helping homeless people during the sixties. When Marc began showing activism streak, Fred and Theresa were not surprised. Craig was not more than six years old when his brother asked him to help solicit funds for a project. He would knock on doors and tell people about a spiel he practiced with his brother and compel them to help.
But Craig wouldn’t begin his own crusade until he turned 12.
The News Story that Changed His Life
One fine day—the newspaper was lying on their kitchen table as usual—Craig was thinking of an upcoming school event. He nonchalantly grabbed the newspaper and leafed through it, looking for the comics section. The newspaper headline took him aback: “Battled child labour, boy, 12, murdered.” He couldn’t help but read the whole story and that’s when he was introduced to Iqbal Masih, a boy from Pakistan who was forced to slavery from the age of four.
Iqbal was freed when he was 10 years old and has since then became a child activist against child slavery. He’s been around the world speaking about kids’ plight. Iqbal returned to Pakistan and was riding his bicycle with some friends when he was brutally killed by unknown gunmen. The boy’s mother, however, was convinced that the boy was shot by his previous master to whom the family owed 12 dollars of loan. Iqbals’ father sold him to that carpet weaver for 12 dollars in order to help finance his brother’s wedding. Then the carpet weaver added enormous interest on top of the loan and charged the family for the meal he’s giving the boy, making it impossible for Iqbal’s parents to ever pay their growing debt.
Iqbal’s story aroused a profound feeling of anger in Craig that he tore the front page, crumpled it, and put it in his bag. There he was totally unperturbed in his home where he has loving parents—a privilege some kids in other parts of the world could only dream of. Like him, Iqbal was only 12 but their lives were worlds apart. All those years before reading the news article, Craig was led to believe that slavery has ended many centuries ago, but he was mistaken.
Fortunately, his school teacher allowed him to speak about Iqbal’s story in front of his wide-eyed classmates. He ended his speech with, “Who’s with me?”
From the "Twelve-Twelve-Year-Olds" to Free The Children
They first called their organization the Twelve-Twelve-Year-Olds and made Craig’s home their headquarters. They faxed politicians and organizations about their crusade to help increase awareness. But Craig knew how limited his knowledge was about the issue. There’s only one way to remedy that. Craig asked his parent’s permission to go to South Asia, alone. Theresa calmly told her son that they love him so much but won’t allow him to go because he’s only 12.
Not the type who’d easily give up, Craig started correspondence with a family friend from Bangladesh, the 25-year-old Alam Rahman. It’s been arranged that Alam would be his chaperone during his “two-week” South Asia trip. He also worked and saved enough money to cover his travel expenses. Eight days before he turned 13, Craig boarded the plane bound for Bangladesh on 9 December 1995—alone.
What he then saw in his trip deeply troubled him. He met kids in India as young as four years old being subjected to forced labor. One of the kids he met was Muniannal, a girl who’s around eight years old. She sorts heaps of syringes to remove the needles. She has no protective gear whatsoever and often punctures her fingers. When Craig asked where those needles came from, Muniannal answered in a barely audible voice (translated to English): “From drug addicts and hospitals.” She was then asked what happens if she gets sick, to which she replied, “I won’t get any treatment.”
Craig went from country to country, exploring what turned out to be a humongous industry. In the Philippines, he met kids who sold their body to foreigners just to get food on the table. He went to Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Pakistan and saw for himself the horror children were facing every single day of their lives.
Craig even joined a protest while he was in India and helped return kids who were rescued from a carpet weaving factory to their families. While in India, he found out that Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was also in Southeast Asia. However, he was turned down when he asked for an audience. When Craig heard about the imprisonment of Kailash Satyarthi, a known activist against child slavery, he collected around 3,000 signatures and sent a letter to India's Prime Minister asking for his release. The petition was encased in a shoebox and the "most memorable" action done on Kailash's behalf if he were to be asked.
Kailash’s daughter, Asmita Satyarthi, would then help Craig in calling for a press conference that forced Canadian Prime Minister to hear them out and not dismiss them as children who know nothing about the world. It provided his organization more than enough publicity to make their cause known nationwide.
Free The Children was born when Craig returned in his home country a changed kid. His eloquence amazed grown-ups whenever he spoke in front of an audience. According to an article by YES Magazine the following happened after he spoke in an event:
"... the OFL briefly grabbed the microphone to announce that the organization would be granting a surprise donation of $5,000 to Kielburger’s organization, Free the Children, for the purpose of building a rehabilitation center for child laborers in India. That gesture was soon matched by many of the other organizations present. At the end of the evening - an evening in which Free the Children had merely intended to raise awareness that child labor did indeed exist—Kielburger had raised $150,000 for the cause."
Craig Founds Me to We and Authors Books
In order to help fund Free The Children, Craig cofounded Me to We with his brother, Marc. It’s a social enterprise that gives people a decent source of income that then covers the administrative work of Free The Children, making it sustainable and not totally dependent on grants. It all started with a “Me to We” book they wrote, which became a New York Times bestseller. An organization was born and it became a recipient of the Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2007. Prior the “Me to We” book, Craig has written “Free the Children” and “Take Action.” He became a celebrated author when more books followed, namely: “Making of an Activist” (with Marc Kielburger), “Take More Action” (with Marc Kielburger), “The World Needs Your Kid: How to Raise Children Who Care and Contribute” (with Marc Kielburger), “Global Voices: Volume 1” (with Marc Kielburger), “Lessons From A Street Kid,” and “My Grandma Follows Me on Twitter... and Other First World Problems We’re Lucky to Have.”
Craig has met illustrious people like Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama. But it’s not getting acquainted with the who’s who that Craig revels being the face of child activism. After talking to the 14th Dalai Lama and hearing him say that society’s problem all boils down to raising a generation of passive bystanders, he said:
“When young people are indirectly taught by parents and teachers that they’ll be great leaders of tomorrow or that they’re still young, they define who they are today by music and peer groups, homework, or marks in school, not by the contribution they can make in society today. I think it’s a disservice to young people. Not only by discouraging them to become active citizens, but also preventing them from finding their own identity and self-worth as something more than just the music they listen to or the peer group they belong to, but as the contribution they make to society.” (Source: Teach Magazine)
Craig’s Accomplishments through Free The Children and Me to We
In order to make sure that they are delivering in terms of commitment, they commissioned third parties to do a study concerning their work in different parts of the world. A professor from William Patterson University named Dr. Kathleen Korgen conducted a study with the help of "students, parents, teachers and school board administrators" to find out about the impact of Free The Children. She listed her findings as the following:
- Students are more aware of global and local issues.
- Students have more and/or stronger leadership skills.
- Students are more confident.
- Students have taken more action to create change.
- Teachers are better able to engage students in caring about the world around them.
- More youth are involved in social justice learning and action.
- Teachers feel more connected to their students.(Source: Free the Children)
Because of the inspiration Craig brings, he was awarded around 10 honorary degrees. He is the youngest graduate to complete MBA Executive of York University's Schulich School of Business and also the youngest person listed in the Globe and Mail's Top 40 under 40. Free The Children has built over 650 schools and school rooms and implemented projects in 45 developing countries through its approach of "children helping children" and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. In 2012, Craig received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
From the 12 people who joined his cause, Free The Children now has 1.7 million participants around the globe, putting a stop to child abuse and slavery.
Craig is a living testimony that there are no limits to making a difference.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Free the Children
- Me to We
- Angel Network
- Leaders Today
- Adopt a Village
- United Nations
Awards and Achievements
- 1995: Founded Twelve-Twelve-Year-Olds organization when he was only 12
- 1995: Twelve-Twelve-Year-Olds organization became Free The Children
- 1995: Went to Asia with their 25-year-old family friend as chaperone
- 1996: Received the Reebok Human Rights Award
- 1999: Founded Leaders Today with Marc Kielburger
- 2002: Received the World of Children Awards - Youth Award
- 2004: Released Me to We book co-written with his brother, Marc
- 2004: Received the Kiwanis International Foundation World Service Medal
- 2006: Received the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child
- 2007: Named a Member of the Order of Canada
- 2007: Received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship
- 2009: Youngest graduate to complete MBA Executive of York University's Schulich School of Business
- 2009-2012: Served in the Board of Governors of Scouts Canda
- 2012: A school in Milton, Ontario was named after him
- 2012: Received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal
- Received the Nelson Mandela Human Rights Award
- Received the Community of Christ International Peace Award
- Received the World Economic Forum Global Leaders of Tomorrow Award
- Received the Top 20 Under 20 Award
- Received the Reebok Human Rights Award
- Received the Medal of Meritorious Service
- Received the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship
- Received the State of the World Forum award
- Received the Roosevelt Freedom Medal
- Became the youngest person listed to the Globe and Mail's Top 40 under 40
- Featured in a special documentary episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, titled "Doing What Matters"
- Guested in The Oprah Winfrey Show, 60 Minutes, as well as National Geographic, TIME, and The Economist
- We Day is considered the largest charitable Facebook cause in the world
- Free The Children is considered the world's largest network of children helping children through education
- Free The Children has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize
- Free The Children has built over 650 schools and school rooms and implemented projects in 45 developing countries through its approach of "children helping children"
- Honorary Doctorate of Education from Nipissing University
- Honorary Degree in Law from University of Guelph
- Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Alberta
- Honorary Degree in Law from Carleton University
- Honorary Doctorate of Letters from York University
- Honorary Degree from Concordia University
- Honorary Degree from University of Toronto
- 1998: Free the Children
- 2002: Take Action (with Marc Kielburger)
- 2004: Me to We (with Marc Kielburger)
- 2007: Making of an Activist (with Marc Kielburger)
- 2008: Take More Action (with Marc Kielburger)
- 2009: The World Needs Your Kid: How to Raise Children Who Care and Contribute (with Marc Kielburger)
- 2010: Global Voices: Volume 1 (with Marc Kielburger)
- 2011: Lessons From A Street Kid
- 2012: My Grandma Follows Me on Twitter... and Other First World Problems We’re Lucky to Have
Wikipedia (Craig Kielburger)
Me to We (Me to We Speaker: Craig Kielburger)
Teach Magazine (Interview with Craig Kielburger of Free the Children)
PeaceHeroes.com (Craig Kielburger Biography)
Free The Children (Our Story)
Facebook (Free The Children page)
Newint.org (Iqbal and Craig: Two children against child labour)
The Huffington Post (Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger, "What We Would Change About Education in Canada")
Yes! (Tracy Rysavy, "Free the Children: the Story of Craig Kielburger")
Amazon (Craig Kielburger, "My Grandma Follows Me on Twitter: And Other First World Problems We're Lucky to Have")
YouTube (The Story of Craig Kielburger)