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Use your pennies for a good cause before they disappear

Free the Children’s Water Initiative is a year-long push to provide rural villages in developing countries with the means to generate and sustain their own clean water supplies.

V. Tony Hauser

It's hard to imagine that the one-cent coin will receive a particularly elaborate sendoff before its Feb. 4 demise.

So with pockets, purse bottoms and sofa cushions still to be mined, Free the Children has come up with a noble directive for the penny's last hurrah.

On Sept. 28, the international children's charity, in partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada, will use its We Day kickoff to launch Canada's Largest Penny Drive. The fundraiser will encourage participating schools across Canada to collect the copper-plated coins in bags of $25 and deposit their hefty bounty at local RBC branches on two designated dates during the year.

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"As Canadians, if we're going to get rid of a currency we might as well put it toward a social purpose," says Free the Children co-founder Marc Kielburger. "It's so Canadian of us," he adds with a laugh.

Because of the cent's swift fall in value over recent years, penny drives have become a bit of a fundraising novelty, more of a tool for raising awareness about a specific cause than a viable means of raising high sums.

But Free the Children's goals are loftier, as evinced by the promise that their penny drive is already "Canada's Largest."

In fact, Mr. Kielburger hopes that the collective efforts of millions of students will rake in $2.5-million – an impressive number for any campaign, an astonishing one when considered in one-cent sums.

The funds will go toward the organization's Water Initiative, a year-long push to provide rural villages in developing countries with the means to generate and sustain their own clean water supplies.

On the ground, this translates into holistic models of development such as boreholes and rainwater catchments, pump-and-tube-based technology that traps and treats water and can be easily maintained by trained community members.

Under their system, Free the Children says $25 can provide one person with clean water for life. It's a sum so paltry by North American standards that the idea it can be collected in pennies starts to seem tenable.

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By their projections, the $2.5-million raised would roughly translate into a lifetime supply of water for 100,000 people.

Mr. Kielburger is banking on the idea's simplicity to inspire Canada's youth into action over We Day's eight-city tour. "They'll be able to equate that into something incredibly powerful in that I, a young person, through a penny drive, have given someone I have never met clean water for the rest of their lives," he says.

According to UNICEF, the number of people in developing countries with no access to safe water or adequate sanitation hovers around the 2.6-billion mark. Contaminated water is responsible for 80 per cent of the disease that tears through these vulnerable populations, and results in the death of one child every 20 seconds.

Though the primary function of Free the Children's Water Initiative is to offset the illness sparked by poor sanitation, Mr. Kielburger is quick to point out the program's additional benefits, ones deeply rooted in the organization's education-focused ethos.

"Every single day, including today, 200 million hours are spent, predominantly by women, collecting water," he says. "And that's an incredible amount of productive time and an opportunity cost that is being dedicated to something that we all, of course, take for granted."

It's also the main reason girls tend to stay out of the classroom. Female children are generally given the task of collecting water for the family, and, depending on their distance from a water source, this can take anywhere from a few hours to an entire day. With a local water supply the need to travel to distant wells would be eradicated, allowing girls to spend their time studying instead.

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This focus on female empowerment played a role in attracting Deepa Prashad to the cause. The Grade 12 student, who recently organized a pair of book drives for young girls in Kenya and Guyana, has already gotten a head start on the penny drive at Scarborough's Sir John A. Macdonald, and has volunteered to help other high schools co-ordinate their own efforts. "It's been pretty easy so far. A lot of people are interested in it," she says.

The 16-year-old has been involved with the organization for three years, most notably speaking at last year's We Day after winning its national What Would You Say? essay contest.

Though she acknowledges the challenges of mobilizing a group of teenagers who "get bored easily," Ms. Prashad is confident the project's approach will secure its success.

"People don't really use penny drives for fundraising events. They don't think a lot of money will be raised. But I think people are more inclined to give that way, especially since they're no longer going to be using their pennies. It's not a situation where you're standing over someone and asking for a certain sum of money," Ms. Prashad says.

The penny's symbolism isn't lost on Mr. Kielburger either. "For young people, pennies are often overlooked. And we want to show that just like putting a whole bunch of young people together, a tremendous impact can be made putting a whole bunch of pennies together."

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