I remember the day my Grade 12 world issues class got personal. It was early 2010 and my friends and I had our minds half on class and half on getting the hell out of high school. Then our teacher Adam McKim brought his friend Cory Richardson in to speak to us.
Cory is a hippie. Around our hometown of Saint John, N.B., Cory is a familiar figure, showing up in the summer at musical festivals and street markets selling hand-made hammocks that he calls Hanging Hugs. But Cory is not your average patchouli-scented hippie who sits around, smokes pot and talks about how he hates the government. He actually does things.
Back in 2010, Cory told our Saint John High School class that on a recent trip to Uganda he had met a man name Gerald, a former street kid who was taking care of a large group of orphans. They desperately needed a place of their own and a school. These children were so cute that I wanted to reach through the screen and adopt them all. And I hate kids.
Cory talked about his Action Hero Network of creative people doing creative projects that were making a real impact around the globe. It was all very interesting, but what did he want us to do? Most of us were getting ready to graduate and we were broke as hell.
The answer was homemade beads, made by members of a Ugandan community. Cory brought back a suitcase full of them, with the intentions selling them and sending the money back to Gerald to help build a school and dormitory for the children. The class decided to help him out by selling them at school fundraisers and in exchange we were promised pictures of the progress.
A few weeks later, Mr. McKim showed us pictures he received from Gerald. They depicted a plot of land with the early stages of a building forming. Encouraged and excited by the real-time progress, for the rest of the semester the class organized fundraisers and helped collect items for Richardson to bring to the children on his next visit.
At the end of the semester we Skyped with Gerald and the kids. Gerald used a old generator that barely did the job, but we saw them: the lives we were changing face-to-face. It dawned on us that this wasn’t a scam, but something quite real. The kids danced and sang with smiles that lit up the other side of the world. They also asked us when we were coming to Uganda to visit.
The Sex Pistols have long advised us to never trust a hippie but with such videographic evidence it was hard not to – we were making a difference. That’s how CHAT to the Future began. Two friends – one a world-travelling hippie, the other a world issues teacher – and a class of Saint John teenagers unaware that they could have an impact on other people.
“When we had that first connection, I didn’t think it was going to work at all,” Mr. McKim told me recently. “To then see the faces of the kids we were helping on screen. There was a lot of emotion in the room.”
It changed Mr. McKim (I can’t call him Adam), who eventually left the classroom to help Cory full-time. Today he’s the executive director of CHAT to the Future, which has grown into a registered Canadian charity that links over 40 North American schools to a small orphanage in Kampala, Uganda via Skype. The North American students use entrepreneurialism to fund the living and schooling of their Ugandan friends. They also Skype with each other at least two times per year. The orphanage, known as CHAT House, is home to 11 girls and six boys.
By connecting North American and African kids via a minimum of twice-a-year video chats, CHAT to the Future has redefined the word ‘neighbour’ for kids who want to become part of the global citizen movement. “Once our kids realize that your neighbours are everywhere, you can start to look at these enormous problems like extreme poverty as things you can be involved in fighting,” Mr. McKim says.
Students do that by designing their own fundraising projects to help their African neighbours. That integration of technology and social entrepreneurship sets CHAT to the Future apart from other charities. It’s even attracted the attention of a legion of superheroes.
Recently, Skype honoured the students of Fredericton’s George Street Middle School as “everyday superheros” for their hard work with a special screening of Captain America and a chance to chat with the films’ stars on the red carpet, including Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie. “If they wanted to screen Downtown Abby at a school, I would have be excited,” McKim says. “But this was Captain America. I’m a fan, so I was really excited for the kids and for the charity.” Skype also will be paying for John (Ben) Kasita’s, the school’s sponsor child, education.
Lise Martin-Keilty, who helps run the CHAT sponsorship at George Street Middle School with colleagues Julie Roe and Sarah Brooks. She said the school’s involvement in CHAT has changed the way their students have viewed the world and their role within it. “These kids are seeing that their world is not their bubble here in Fredericton. They see the world as Global village. We’re all brothers and sisters and we can’t turn a blind eye to these lovely children just because they were born in poverty,” Martin-Keilty says. “We can do something to help them. And just that whole idea of global citizenship, about empathy, about caring for others, learning about others, [the students] are on fire.”
CHAT is much different from the project my class began but the memories and the lessons from its humble beginnings are no lost on many of my world issues classmates. “This project changed everything about me,” says my former classmate Veronica Roy, who is now a mother and studying at the University of New Brunswick. “It truly taught me to be grateful for what I have and what I receive as a Canadian citizen. It was an amazing learning curve on my journey.”
Roy’s experience in the class also led her to discover her passion for charity and volunteer work and finding ways to help those less fortunate. She said it’s hard to believe how much things have grown since we were selling beads. “I don’t think our class could of ever dreamed of a better outcome,” she says.
Neither do I.