Sam Terry doesn't want to be known as "that fundraiser girl." But when you're a month shy of your 15th birthday and have built one school in Nepal and are outfitting another, that horse has definitely left the barn.
The teen from Barnwell, Alta., a small ranching community outside of Taber, juggles basketball, the honour roll and rodeo competitions with public speaking engagements. It's how she raised her first $32,000 before she'd even graduated from elementary school.
Whether delivered at a swanky gala at the Fairmont Palliser hotel in Calgary or in a small-town classroom, Sam's message is straightforward: "My theory is that life is like a lottery and we got the winning ticket, but you could share your prize with everyone," she said.
Her philanthropic ethos runs against the prevailing view of the so-called Millennial Me demographic – those supposedly fixated on consumer culture, tethered to cellphones and inflated by a sense of entitlement. But while Sam's accomplishments set her apart, she is far from being the lone giver in a generation often described as takers.
Young Canadians form a "powerhouse of giving," according to a 2008 survey commissioned by Mackenzie Investments, which sponsors a yearly contest to highlight Canada's top teen philanthropists. They're donating time – 100 million hours a year – and money, with the approximately three million Canadians between 13 and 19 giving an average of $293 a year, while engaging in fundraising activities that contribute an additional $516.
"Because of trends in social media, today's teens have a powerful understanding of how to harness people behind a cause," said Brad Offman, who oversees the competition for Mackenzie Investments. "They're driven by the fact that they truly believe they can make a difference."
Sam has a similar take.
"Adults think with their heads; kids think with their hearts," she said. "Whenever I'm telling my story to kids, it's not, 'What's my financial obligation?' It's just, 'What can I do now?' "
Looking to tap into this action-based altruism is a wide range of organizations, from churches and service clubs to youth-driven global initiatives such as Free the Children – whose co-founder Craig Kielburger will help choose 2011's Top Teen Philanthropist.
But while Mr. Kielburger and other high-profile activists provide inspiration, it's family members who are the most powerful charitable role models – the number of teens in the survey who said they were motivated by celebrities dropped to 5 per cent in 2009 from 11 per cent in 2008.
Sam's grassroots philanthropy was sparked when her grandparents showed her a video on the efforts of Room to Read, an international literacy charity founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood. Sam, then in Grade 6, announced to her mother that she was going to raise money to build a school for Sherpa children.
"She picked Nepal because it was the cheapest place to build," said Pauline Terry, who encouraged her daughter to come up with a fundraising plan.
Sam chose public speaking. "I grew up in a family where the supper table is never quiet and in a small town where your voice gets heard a lot," said Sam, whose Grade 9 graduating class had 12 students.
Impressed, the Calgary West Rotary Club has tapped the teen to assist them in their efforts to build a high school in Nepal in partnership with the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation. In April, more than 40 participants from Southern Alberta will be making a bucket-list journey from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp. In keeping with Rotary's motto, "Service Above Self," each trekker will donate $2,500 to the building fund. Sam, who will be in school and unable to join them, committed to raising $15,000 for school supplies.
For this project, Sam decided to forgo adults and appeal directly to kids. The cheques are smaller, but the positive peer pressure more than makes up for it. She's already raised $7,502 – one school, one loonie at a time. "To most people that's not a big deal, but when you add it all up, it's significant," she said.
Sam also set two rules for herself: 1, the fundraising couldn't interfere with basketball; and 2, she wouldn't speak at her own school. "With the Rotarians, I'm Sam Terry, the girl who builds schools in Nepal," she said. "To my friends, I'm just Sam, the same as everyone else."