We Day launches U.S. movement in Federal Way | Seattle event includes Mikhail Gorbachev

At age 5, Michel Chikwanine was kidnapped by rebel troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The rebels forced the boy to become a soldier. They blindfolded him, drugged him, put a machine gun in his hands, and made him shoot his friend.

This was Chikwanine's initiation into the rebel army.

"You've killed your best friend. Now your family will never take you back," the kidnappers told Chikwanine. "We are your family."

As a child soldier against his will, Chikwanine was forced to kill more people.

Two weeks later, he escaped.

For three days and three nights, Chikwanine ran through the jungle without food or water. With danger close behind, he eventually reached a small store and was reunited with his family.

Chikwanine was granted political refugee status at age 11, and left the war-torn continent for a new life in Canada. He learned to speak near perfect English, and today, at age 24, shares his personal story with audiences across North America.

"That was then. This is now," Chikwanine told a silent gymnasium at Federal Way High School on Tuesday. "I wouldn't be where I am today without people giving me a hand."

This survivor has linked up with Craig Kielburger, a Canadian motivational speaker and activist who founded Free the Children. The organization inspires youth to become agents of social change.

Kielburger started Free the Children in 1995 after reading about the death of Iqbal Masih, a children's rights activist from Pakistan who had been sold into slavery.

Since 2007, thousands of teens have filled stadiums across Canada for Free the Children's We Day. Celebrities such as NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, and pop star Justin Bieber have helped deliver We Day's message of philanthropy and social change.

Just weeks after his last visit, Kielberger returned to Federal Way High School on Oct. 2 to lead the announcement of the first We Day in the United States. Tuesday's program was streamed live to all 37 schools in the district.

We Day will make its U.S. debut March 27 at Key Arena in Seattle, featuring keynote speaker Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. More celebrity speakers will be unveiled as the event nears.

There are no tickets to buy. Students earn their way into We Day by doing local and global deeds.

Federal Way High School will lead a We Scare Hunger collection drive Oct. 31. Teens will trick-or-treat for canned goods to benefit the Multi-Service Center Food Bank.

"You don't have to participate, but there are a lot of us who want to," said Caleb Dawson, event emcee and FWHS student leader. "Together, we're going to make a difference."

The goal for We Day is to spread across America. Kielburger appreciated the support from Federal Way Public Schools in launching the program's arrival in the U.S.

"I was blown away by their commitment, leadership and passion," Kielburger said afterward, surrounded by students. Groups like the Decatur Honor Society and the Key Club pledged to feed the homeless and help end hunger.

We Day is backed by big players in the Puget Sound region.

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll issued a call to action, and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman shared a piece of wisdom: the future is only as bright as the light that leads it.

Also speaking in support Tuesday were Microsoft executive vice president Brad Smith, U.S. Olympian Patrick Deneen, and former child soldier Michel Chikwanine.

Free the Children reports nearly 3 million pounds of food raised by youth volunteers. The organization estimates a total contribution of $32 million in social value between volunteer hours and collections.


Click here to see photos from the Oct. 2 rally at Federal Way High School.

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