We Day at the Muhammad Ali Center in April 2013
We Day at the Muhammad Ali Center in April 2013

Craig Kielburger was just 12 years old when he recruited a dozen classmates in Ontario, Canada, to see if they could help kids on the other side of the globe. That was in 1995, and now Kielburger operates Free the Children/Me to We, the world’s largest network of children helping children.

In 2012, Kielburger traveled to Louisville, where he attended a dinner party hosted by Kris Sirchio, a former marketing executive at Brown-Forman, and his wife Wendy. The Sirchios were drawn to Kielburger and his mission.

“It was clear that this message of compassion had an incredible link to our city,” said Kris Sirchio. “I spoke to Craig and suggested Louisville was a perfect fit.”

From there, with the help of officials from schools represented at the party, the ball got rolling. Seven local schools signed up immediately. As of now, more than 40 local schools and nonprofits are involved.

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One of more than 200 posters created during We Day at the Ali Center

The seven original schools collected food and clothing, served meals at local soup kitchens, and contributed 1,586 books to a literacy project in 2012. In April 2013, a “Mini We Day” held at the Ali Center resulted in 200 “Posters for Positive Change” being created, and Mayor Greg Fischer spoke to the group.

The Sirchios believe they can grow to bring big-name speakers and talent to make the next We Day a bigger event. One goal is to pack the Kentucky Center for the Arts for the We Day celebration.

In Canada, We Day parties pack 20,000 into arenas and theaters to celebrate good works — the only way to get in to see the star speakers and performers is to contribute service hours. Canadian WeDay celebrations have included artists such as Jennifer Hudson and Nelly Furtado, and motivating speeches from the likes of Martin Sheen and Al Gore.

Louisville is only the third American city, along with Seattle and Minneapolis, to organize a local We Day celebration.

“We want to bring the program to the entire state, and to get 15,000-20,000 people in Louisville,” Sirchio said. “We think we can get 50, 100, even 200 schools involved.”

Convincing schools to get involved has been easier than expected, Sirchio said. Each school must find its own project. For example, 42 third-graders from St. Raphael School wrote letters to get used electronics donated so they could generate $600 for a project at the Louisville Zoo.

The project chosen by Louisville Collegiate School in the fall of 2012 was a Halloween for Hunger Food Drive. More than 500 students generated a ton of food for local food banks and shelters. But that was only the beginning.

This year, the project grew to include 33 different schools/organizations (public, parochial and private) across all ages (elementary through college). Dare to Care and the Lord’s Kitchen received 16,492 pounds of food, the equivalent of 4,000 meals.

The campaign generated an estimated 8,700 service hours. Naturally, there’s a connection to the city’s Compassionate City campaign, and leaders from JCPS and the University of Louisville are on board.

Last fall, through a partnership with the Idea Festival, the Me toWe organization hosted a pair of Maasai Warriors in Louisville. These Africans, who must slay lions to prove bravery in their culture, spread a message of compassion and inspired countless young people here, according to Sirchio.

The Sirchios (Wendy is a retired U.S. Foreign Service diplomat) are determined to build the organization, and in particular to encourage young people to enroll in service programs to fight hunger. But it’s not just about one cause.

“Young people are the biggest untapped source of community value,” said Sirchio, who left Brown-Forman last year. “It’s also clear that kids who get involved have a higher engagement in their communities, stay in school and graduate, have a high voting record and donate more hours in service to their communities.”

Rick Redding

Rick Redding

Rick Redding is a Louisville native who’s been a part of the local news scene since the 1990s. He’s written for Business First, LEO and other publications. In 2006, he launched TheVilleVoice.com, and was later voted the city’s Best Blogger by Louisville Magazine. In 2011, LEO readers voted him “Best Local Feature Writer.” He’s also appeared frequently as a guest on local TV and Radio shows, discussing local media and issues. He operates a local site, LouisvilleKY.com.