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Global Learning Centre takes We organization to new heights

The Global Learning Centre on Queen Street East in Toronto will use cutting-edge technology to help young people engage in community and global service.

Maciej Dolzychi/WE

The Globe and Mail and the We Charity are partners on a range of content and media literacy initiatives, including We Day at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sept. 28. We Day brings together performers and speakers for an audience of young people interested in social change, and includes events this fall in Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Halifax.

What started as an informal sunrise conversation in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve has blossomed into a high-tech education centre in Toronto's Corktown in the city's lower east end.

On Sept. 27, the non-profit organization We (formerly Free the Children) will cut the ribbon on its Global Learning Centre. The $15-million facility, located in a retrofitted former furniture store at the corner of Queen and Parliament streets, will allow the We youth-empowerment organization to help more young people, in more communities, to make a meaningful impact on global issues such as homelessness, sustainability and water security.

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And it all began on the Kenyan savannah.

Winnipeg businessman Hartley Richardson was accompanying his 16-year-old daughter on a We trip to build a school in Kenya. She had already earned tickets to several Canadian We Days through her volunteerism, and her father was impressed by the organization's impact. "What I've seen, in my own children and others, is the belief that they can make a difference in the world," says Mr. Richardson. "They really believe it, and that changes them. They're not afraid to try."

Early one morning, Mr. Richardson took a walk with Craig Kielburger, who founded We with his brother, Marc. The conversation soon turned to numbers.

"I explained that our admin costs were nine cents on the dollar, so 91 cents go directly to youth-serving projects," recalls Mr. Kielburger.

"He asked, 'How do we make your admin costs zero?' We talked about technology and scale."

Mr. Kielburger just thought Mr. Richardson was "naturally inquisitive." Until, that is, he received a phone call back in Canada: "I want to build you a campus for good," Mr. Richardson said. He envisioned a physical space that would leverage cutting-edge technology in order to help even more young people engage in service – and to make their efforts even more impactful.

The result is the 43,000-square-foot Global Learning Centre, which is housed in the former home of the iconic Marty Millionaire furniture store. The building's interior has been completely redesigned, while the exterior has been restored to maintain the neighbourhood's traditional character. In addition to Mr. Richardson, several donors helped the project come to fruition.

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The We organization conducted focus groups with students and teachers across Canada and the United States.

"We asked, 'What would be exciting for you?'" says Carrie Patterson, chief operations director of We Charity. Her focus is on We's educational partnerships, providing teachers at thousands of schools with more than a dozen curriculum packages, and sending motivational speakers into the schools. "We wanted to know what they wanted to be part of, and what we could do that would help them." The results of the consultation were used to shape the development of the centre.

The centre has two main purposes: to give students around the world the tools and support they need to create positive social change, and to support educators in delivering service-based curricula through the We Schools program.

The Social Entrepreneurship Incubation Hub, located on the main floor, is where young social entrepreneurs who already have an idea – an app, a business, a product – will receive mentorship, dedicated workspace and other support in order to transform their concept into a social enterprise that has maximum impact.

Ten students will participate in the nine-week program at a time. The program will start with students from the GTA, with plans to expand with a virtual component to support young entrepreneurs from around the world.

The second floor will be dedicated to supporting educators around the world who are committed to delivering purposeful, service-based experiential learning to their students. Students may learn about biology, for example, by testing the drinking water in their community – or learn computer science by doing coding for a non-profit organization.

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Educators will participate in monthly learning sessions (in-person or virtually) with We staff and their peers. Throughout the semester, We staff will conduct virtual check-in sessions to see how classrooms are progressing on their projects.

"What we often hear from educators is that they're alone in their schools," says Ms. Patterson. "We want them to feel a sense of community with like-minded educators, no matter where they are."

The Global Learning Centre reflects what Mr. Kielburger characterizes as "massive changes" in Canadian young people's attitudes toward service. When he and his brother started their organization 23 years ago – themselves only 12 and 17 years old – Canadians under the age of 18 were the country's demographic that was least likely to volunteer. "Today," he proudly notes, "they're the most likely to volunteer."

Mr Kielburger cites numbers the We organization gathered on North American youth engagement in social initiatives, which were validated by Mission Measurement, a third-party social impact measurement firm.

The study calculated the annual value of three measures: fundraising dollars, food collected for food banks, and hours of volunteer work. (The study measured 2,500 different initiatives, not just We projects.) "Students create more than $100-million annually in social value for local, national or global non-profits."

"When I go to We Days, the demographic seems to have changed," adds Mr. Richardson. "Students are getting engaged at a younger age. It's very encouraging."

Mr. Kielburger says that there are many factors driving that change, including high schools that have incorporated service learning into graduation requirements, "but one of the biggest factors is it's more possible to make a difference."

The organization currently engages with 14,500 schools in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. In Canada alone, the organization has supported 1.8 million young people in their efforts to make the world a better place. Mr. Kielburger says the new centre will be key to the organization's five-year goal of expanding the We Schools program to 24,000 schools. But it is not just about reaching more students, it is about reaching different types.

In order to better support students and teachers around the world – particularly in rural and remote communities – the centre includes Skype pods and a 200-person theatre that can be divided into two digital classrooms.

We commissions annual third-party studies to gauge the effectiveness of the We Schools program. The data show that frequency is a key factor to a student's success in making lasting, meaningful impact to their community.

We's Sacred Circle leadership program, for example, already works with elders and mentors to help First Nations, Metis and Inuit youth to make change and become leaders in their communities – but it is prohibitively expensive to fly teams into remote communities for weekly check-ins. "Now we have the ability to have a one-on-one mentoring session, or a conversation with an auditorium full of youth in Churchill, in Iqaluit, anywhere," says Mr. Kielburger.

"If we're there in the life of the student on a weekly basis as a mentor," he says, "we can support them as they build their action plan, as they implement their action plan, as they write their persuasive letters, as they practice their speeches."

"It's not just a one-and-done," says Ms. Patterson. "Making good doable requires a consistent support network, and that's what the centre will allow us to do."

A multi-donor effort

Once Hartley Richardson set his mind to transforming the We Global Learning Centre from dream into reality, he quietly reached out to his friends.

David Aisenstat, president of Keg Restaurants Ltd., was a no-brainer. "He's been to more We Days than anyone I know," says Mr. Richardson, and didn't need to be convinced of the organization's ability to empower young people to change their world for the better.

Mr. Aisenstat agreed to provide the same level of personal support as his friend. Mr. Richardson's family's foundation came on board and, he says, "with that support in place, we were able to reach out to other foundations and individuals to complete the project." Key partners include Royal Bank of Canada, Siemens, Cisco and SMART Technologies. Microsoft, notes We co-founder Craig Kielburger, "outfitted us with technology. And Telus literally tore up the street to put hi-definition connectivity in for us."

One given, as this massive project came together, was location. "As much as I teased Craig about why the centre wasn't being built in Winnipeg, I knew it was important that it be in Corktown," says the Winnipeg-based Mr. Richardson.

The centre is located in a former furniture store in one of Toronto's "priority neighbourhoods," which are socio-economically vulnerable, and receive preference for public and private funding.

"We have our roots in this neighbourhood," says Mr. Kielburger. "Our previous office was located here. A lot of our staff and volunteers support local schools and non-profits in the community. We wanted the centre to be a community asset, as well as a global one."

Hundreds of We employees already volunteer their free time with programs in the neighbourhood, which includes Regent Park and Moss Park. Local community groups will have access to the centre's facilities.

"Very often, neighbourhoods are transformed in ways that don't relate to the people who live there," says Pierre Filion, professor in the University of Waterloo's School of Planning.

"It's really good news to hear that a charitable organization, instead of the head office of a major corporation, or lofts, is establishing itself in an older industrial structure, and in a way that will be of use to the [residents]. It's countering some of the gentrification effect that is changing those types of areas. You don't see this happen frequently, and it's to everyone's credit that it's happening."

Editor's note: The size of the Global Learning Centre was incorrectly stated in the original version of this story due to an editing error. The correct size is 43,000 square feet.

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