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Originally published March 27, 2013 at 7:48 PM | Page modified March 28, 2013 at 10:40 AM

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Stars shine at We Day, inspire students to change the world

We Day drew 15,000 students and supporters to KeyArena. Now the question is, will they find ways to stay active and effective in their communities and the world?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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KeyArena rocked with shouts, cheers and chants Wednesday, but by the end of the day, it was clear the most important aspect of We Day was not the event itself, but what happens next.

“It starts here, but you have to keep it going,” said singer Jennifer Hudson, one of a long line of celebrities and inspirational speakers who electrified the crowd of 15,000 students and supporters from across Washington.

This was the first We Day event in the United States — a grand-scale pep rally and concert organized by the Toronto-based charity Free The Children. Students earned their way to it by committing to work on local and global causes they chose.

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, a fan favorite at the event, said for this day, the emphasis was on the audience. “They have so much energy, and that can continue to grow.”

Teammate Richard Sherman concurred, “You get chills down your spine because you know that because of them, the world is going to be a better place.”

The star-studded lineup included Seattle-based rapper Macklemore, the British Columbia pop-rock band Hedley, singer Nelly Furtado and others.

Speakers included actors Martin Sheen and actress Mia Farrow, both of whom have been involved in other Free the Children projects.

Magic Johnson drew an ovation, as did former Sonic Gary Payton and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who was instrumental in bringing the event to Seattle.

Students heard stories of triumph over adversity, such as that of Spencer West, a legless man who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on his hands. And that of Michel Chikwanine, required at the age of 5 to join rebel soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who forced him to shoot his own best friend.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer encouraged the students to find their own cause and commit to it. “If you’re not passionate about something,” he asked them, “how the heck can you make any difference at all?”

Nine-year-old Robby Novak, of Tennessee, who plays “Kid President” in popular YouTube videos, charmed the students, other performers and the news media. At a media briefing he was asked what he would do if he really were the president.

His answer: “I would cut out cigarettes.”

Since 2007, there have been 23 We Days, all in Canada. The group is expanding its international efforts with a We Day in Minnesota later this year and one in London next year.

Backers say the events have helped raise $26 million for 900 different causes, and led to 5.1 million hours of volunteer service.

Sheen, appearing at his seventh We Day, told reporters that although he makes his living as an actor, “It’s activism that keeps me alive.”

He said Free the Children approached him about getting involved, and he continues to be impressed with its effectiveness.

“There is a great hope and excitement about this new generation,” Sheen said. “We’ve had our chance and we didn’t do so well.”

Farrow told the students one obstacle they can expect will be people telling them that change takes time, and that patience is a virtue. “Patience is not a virtue,” she insisted. “Be very impatient. Get things done.”

Hudson, who had performed at one previous We Day, held in Toronto, recalled “Looking out on a sea of what I call angels ... These kids have done some amazing things just to get here.”

Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil-rights leader, said, “Our most precious resource is you, our children.” He told the students that if they love their communities, they can overcome poverty, hunger, bullying and other problems.

Toronto brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger started Free the Children in 1995, after Craig, then 12, read a newspaper report of forced child labor in Pakistan. “The hardest part when we started out was getting people to take us seriously.”

Craig Kielburger said he hopes We Day becomes an annual event in Seattle, as it has in some Canadian cities. Its future depends on students who attended this one spreading the word about youth activism in their schools and communities.

“Youth want to change the world,” he said. “They’re just looking for the opportunity.”

That’s exactly what students such as Kayla Arpin, a seventh-grader at Kirkland’s Emerson K-12, wanted to hear. She’s interested in international projects, “and it’s good to know you’re not the only one who wants to change something.”

Jack Broom: jbroom@seattletimes.com

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