If you have any doubts about the future, spending the day amidst the 15,000 middle and high school students that packed KeyArena Wednesday for the inaugural WE Day celebration would eliminate all of them.
The event – the first in the U.S. after a number of successful ones in the founders’ native Canada – was a combination concert, pep rally, and revival. Ear splitting enthusiasm greeted the likes of Magic Johnson, Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and over a dozen other celebrities and notables who kept the crowd pumped up all day. They had inspirational stories and performances aimed at celebrating good deeds and encouraging the students to find their own way to change the world.
“I hope that everybody’s changed, I hope that everybody feels different, that they have the power to create change and do the kind of things that will really make this world special and a better place,” said Carroll, the co-chair of the event who encouraged co-founder Craig and Marc Kielburger to bring WE Day to Seattle after hearing Craig speak at an event in Tacoma several years ago.
Students couldn’t buy their way into WE Day. They earned their tickets by performing one global and one local act of community service, with corporate sponsors like Microsoft and Amway picking up the tab for the multi-million dollar event.
“We’ve heard, for example, about Aviation High School and how they collected 500 cans of food for their food bank. We heard about Madison Park Elementary and how they are going on field trips and cleaning up their local park. And we heard about Issaquah High School and how you’ve helped to raise $10,000 to build two wells of a clean water project in Africa,” the Kielburgers said as they frenetically worked the stage with their tireless energy, recognizing just some of the hundreds of projects spawned by WE Day and the accompanying WE Act program that supports students year round.
“We fundamentally believe that you don’t turn 18 and then develop a social conscience. You need to have the opportunity to engage on social issues at a young age,” said Marc Keilburger. He should know. The brothers have been dedicated activists since Craig formed his first charity effort to help child slaves when he was just 12-years-old. “And what we try to do is inspire young people, but then give them the skills and tools in which they can get involved.”
Federal Way High School senior Caleb Emmanuel Dawson was among those inspired to make a difference. He’s been organizing and staging a number of fundraisers over the last few years to help the homeless and hungry.
“You see things and you want to do something about it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s here or overseas, you can relate to it. The drive is that we can really make a difference. I love it,” Dawson said.
While most of the kids in the crowd were blown away by the superstars and other inspirational speakers, the feeling was mutual.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman – who drew huge cheers at WE Day along with fellow players Russell Wilson, John Moffitt, and Russell Okung – said the students far surpassed his wildest expectations when he first joined the effort last fall.
“I think they did more than they could ever expect them to do. I think there were 6,000 pens and pencils sent to Gana. There were kids doing everything they could to help anyway they could. Just to see that gives you chills,” Sherman said.
While the kids remained enthusiastic throughout the day, the biggest cheers came at the end of the event when Carroll announced a surprise appearance by Seattle hip hop superstar Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who brought the house down with an exuberant performance of his hit songs Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us.
Macklemore told the delirious crowd he’d taken an overnight flight just to be there.
“I think this is one of the most important things for youth in the country,” he said. “One of the key components to our success and my success as a human being is to be able to give back to other people.”
The event far surpassed even Carroll’s highest hopes, from kids to the talent and businesses that got behind the effort. And along with bringing it back to Seattle again, he’s setting his sights on expanding the movement to all of the other NFL cities and beyond.
“When everybody realizes the power and just this extraordinary event I think that they’re going to want to be a part of it.”
And he said the message isn’t just for young people, but he hopes it inspires everyone to do their part to make the world a better place. After spending a day around the electricity generated by Carroll and all the WE Day participants, it’s virtually impossible to resist.