Thornhill’s Person of the Year: Marc Kielburger

Author, humanitarian and children’s rights activist

Marc Kielburger is one-half of two enterprising brothers whose surname has become synonymous across Canada and around the world with social responsibility and philanthropy.
Marc is the chief executive director of Free the Children — the international development charity founded by his brother Craig in the basement of their family’s Thornhill home 13 years ago.

Marc, who is six years older, is the quieter of the two, but his actions have had a resounding impact in 2009.

By all accounts, Marc, who admits he’s “shamelessly idealistic,” lives his life philosophy of finding personal happiness in helping others.

Aside from regularly rubbing shoulders with politicians, celebrities and the world’s top movers and shakers and penning several best-selling books, including Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World, Marc is a recipient of the Order of Canada, one in a long list of other awards.

But despite these grand accolades, the 32-year-old says he’s humbled at being named Thornhill’s Person of the Year.

“The award, in a way, is a representation of what Thornhill stands for and the people that make up the community,” he explains. “Thornhill is really where it all started. Our first office was at Lick’s Hamburgers on Yonge Street near Highway 7. Our first real mini-conference was at MacDonald House and 25 people came out.”

On Oct. 5 of this year, the third annual “We Day” took place at the Air Canada Centre with an audience of 30,000.

Part conference, part concert, We Day Toronto drew the likes of Michael “Pinball” Clemons and Robert Kennedy Jr., to give motivational speeches, as well as performers like Hedley and the Jonas Brothers to entertain the 16,000 students gathered from across Ontario. “The atmosphere was electric,” recalls Marc. In all, students from more than 1,000 Ontario schools came out, and every student there made a commitment to work on social change in the coming year. The goal: changing kids’ mindsets from “me” living to “we” living.

Me to We is a social enterprise that helps financially support Free the Children. In his role as Me to We’s director, Marc spends about two-thirds of his year on the road, speaking at conferences or, as he says, “getting the word out and continually trying to meet as many young people as possible to try and get them engaged.”

“Me to We does things that Free the Children can’t do as a charity, like operate things like volunteer trips and travel programs, fair trade and a socially responsible clothing line,” he explains. “When people make a donation to Free the Children, they get a tax receipt and they know it goes to projects, but Me to We is more of a lifestyle. It’s not a donation per se. They receive something back in product.”

Having been so intrigued by Free the Children’s various projects, which he witnessed in operation first-hand during a trip to Kenya, and impressed by the work of the Kielburgers, Clemons committed to funding the building of 131 schools over a five-year period.
“If I could characterize Marc’s greatest strength, it would be that he has a mature power,” says Clemons. “He has an indomitable spirit combined with great intellect and can command any stage but is content in the front or in the back and will always praise others over himself.”

This year alone, Marc and Craig expanded Free the Children, opening regional offices in Montreal and Vancouver and expanding into the United States, opening an office in the San Francisco Bay area of California. They are currently planning an expansion into Europe. Of the future, Marc says, “One day, eventually, we want to put ourselves out of business. The worst forms of poverty will no longer be there, and we think that’s very feasible in our lifetime. You know, we’ve built 5,000 schools, but that’s literally the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much work to be done.”

Marc’s destiny in aid work was cemented at a young age. When he was 13, the future Rhodes scholar headed to Jamaica on a school program, working at a leper colony, an experience that had a profound impact on him. A few years later at 18, he spent eight months volunteering in the slums of Bangkok, caring for people with AIDS. Upon returning home, he set about to launch Leaders Today, an organization that aimed to empower youth through leadership education.

Going on to do his undergraduate degree in international relations at Harvard, Marc then headed to Oxford University to get a law degree. In fact, if he weren’t working at Free the Children and its sister organization Me to We, Marc says he would most certainly be putting that law degree to good use, practising human rights law, “something with a great deal of meaning and substance,” he says.

Although Marc and his wife of nearly two years, Roxanne, who also works at Me to We, now live downtown, Thornhill remains a source of pride and fondness for him. “It’s such an amazing place that it’s been able to foster such social activism and also support its citizens and its community in such a profound way,” he says of the place where he grew up.

Greg Rogers, Marc’s former high school rugby coach and vice-principal at Brebeuf College says, “[Marc] was willing to challenge if he thought there were some injustices happening and was always up for helping build community spirit on campus when it was needed. This idea of building community is just a part of the fabric of who he is.”

Rogers, recalling how, when Marc was in Grade 12, he took it upon himself to become a team leader on a week-long orientation at Camp Olympia for Grade 9 students: “At the end of the week, we had a debrief meeting, and I said, ‘Are there any questions?’ And Marc said, ‘Yeah, coach, we did a great job on that. What else do you need done around here?’”