By Channing Joseph
The excitement was infectious at the SAP Center stadium in San Jose, California on Wednesday. More than 16,000 young people danced, cheered, and did the wave while Cody Simpson, Colbie Caillat, Joe Jonas, Cher Lloyd, Hannah Simone, and dozens of other celebrities performed songs or gave inspirational speeches. The event, called “We Day California,” brought busloads of students from across the country to celebrate giving back in all its forms – from picking up litter in San Francisco to building schools in Africa.
Chloe Varlack, 16, was a lucky member of a small group of those students who got to hang out backstage and take photos with the stars. And although meeting famous people was fun, she said, that wasn’t the most significant part of We Day.
“The celebrities are important to an extent,” she told MTV News, but “this event was more than seeing our favorite celebs. This event was a gathering of students of different races, backgrounds, genders, and socioeconomic statuses that are making a valiant effort to change the world one step at a time.”
We Day California is part of a series of events – held in England and across North America – for young people between about 12 and 18 years old. All of the events are put on by the group Free the Children. Since the events began in 2007, attendees have raised more than $45 million for their favorite causes and have volunteered almost 15 million hours of their time, according to the organizers. Over the years, Jennifer Hudson, Demi Lovato, Nelly Furtado, Kid President, Magic Johnson, Marlee Matlin, Mia Farrow, and many other stars have made appearances.
Also, no tickets are sold to We Day, so attendees like Chloe must earn their way in by doing service work, usually through their schools or youth groups. Each person must complete one action to fight a problem in their own neighborhood – like drugs or homelessness – and one action to tackle a global issue – like climate change or sweatshop labor.
In Chloe's case, her mom has multiple sclerosis, so part of her community service is raising money for and increasing awareness of that disease, which causes a person’s immune system to attack the body’s nerves, leading to chronic pain, fatigue, muscle spasms, and other symptoms.
“My mother has been sick my entire life, so her sickness isn't anything new,” Chloe said. “I don't speak about it much, but it hurts to see her in pain so often.”
It’s seeing her mom’s pain every day that has inspired her to do something to help the 2.5 million people around the world who have MS.
“Anything helps – even just a dollar. Any small contribution is another step in the direction to helping victims of this disease,” she said.
Chloe is also a technology enthusiast and part of Microsoft YouthSpark's TEALS tech education and literacy program at her school, so for a local action, she volunteers her time at a museum, teaching younger kids there to build electrical circuits and helping them to get excited about science and engineering.
“It brings me so much joy to see the children's excited faces that are always positive and always ready to learn!” she said.
Caitlyn Bardin, 18 – a friend of Chloe’s from computer science class at Abraham Lincoln High – was also pumped to talk about her community service work.
Because she was homeless for five years, Caitlyn feels inspired to give back to other young people who are struggling. One way she does that is by volunteering for Opportunity Youth, an organization that works to keep kids like her from dropping out of school.
“I want to use the negative in my life to fuel my ambition to change the world,” she said. “Even if my contributions are small, they impact the world nonetheless and hopefully bring a smile to at least one person’s face, and I suppose that is what matters to me at the end of each day.”
Her advice to young people in difficult situations? “Endure and overcome.”
“Sometimes hardships strike at the most unsuspecting moments,” she added. “If it is something that is rather devastating, such as homelessness or perhaps some sort of abuse, I encourage those affected by it to communicate these events to someone they trust. ... I spent a lot of time volunteering or being active with my community as a way of coping. Not only did I meet new people, I managed to surround myself with positivism and purpose.”
For Caitlyn, who got to take a photo with Colbie Caillat, the famous faces are an important part of We Day.
“While there could certainly be a We Day without any celebrities,” she told MTV, “I think that having them speak creates a significantly larger impact. The youth especially are able to recognize these individuals, so they easily relate with these role models they watch on the media.”
But why are so many celebrities interested in performing at an event focused on getting teens to do community service?
Cody Simpson, the 18-year-old chart-topping Australian pop star, said he was asked to participate in We Day Vancouver three years ago and has kept coming back year after year because of the positive energy of the crowds and the inspiring message – that young people can change the world. This year, he performed his hit “Flower” and a new song titled “New Girl, New Problem.”
“It’s always an honor to be asked back,” he told MTV News. “The message of my new music is peace and it is love and it is freedom. It’s all in line with what Free the Children and We Day stand for.”
In the future, he said, he would like to work with Free the Children to build schools in Haiti and other impoverished countries.
Joe Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, said he met the founders of Free the Children, Craig and Marc Kielburger, about six or seven years ago, and, like Cody, has appeared at We Days for the past three.
“I’ve just been thrilled to support,” he said. “It feels good for me to be able to raise my voice and encourage young people to raise money for charity and help others.”
Colbie Caillat, who sang her hit songs “Try” and “Never Gonna Let You Down,” told MTV News that she saw the experience as an honor and was thrilled to perform for “an arena full of kids who are so enthused about making a positive impact in their communities.”
The Grammy Award winner said she was especially excited to perform “Try” because of the song’s message of self-acceptance and empowerment that tells the young people in the audience that “they don’t have to be anyone else other than themselves.”
“This is the best place, I think, to perform [the song]," she said.
She also confessed that We Day has changed the way she looks at the younger generation because the kids who come are “fully paying attention to everything that is going on onstage,” including the many speeches by activists, filmmakers, politicians, and nonprofit leaders.
“They’re not just here for the musical performances,” she said. “It’s mind-blowing how well they receive it and what they do with it when they go home.”