The popular image of teenagers as sullen, self-absorbed and disengaged is taking a serious hit thanks to Toronto’s Shane Feldman. He is the 19-year-old old founder and executive director of Count Me In (CMI), a rapidly expanding non-profit youth-run initiative promoting and facilitating tween and teen volunteerism.
“To this day I am shocked by how profound the simple change of getting involved has been on my life. But I started meeting new people and making new friends and it all took off from there,” Feldman tells Samaritanmag.
The CMI concept is simple and winning: Count Me In inspires kids from grades 7-12 to volunteer locally with charities as diverse as the Canadian Cancer Society, Plan Canada, World Vision, Canadian Blood Services, MADD, and Habitat for Humanity.
“The primary focus of Count Me In,” reads a message on its website, “is to raise awareness of local and global issues and volunteer opportunities. By helping teens plug in to their communities, Count Me In is forming lasting relationships between students and the charitable sector.”
In addition to acting as a kind of volunteer matchmaking service for Canadian youth and charities, CMI also stages daylong conferences which function as equal parts field trip, motivational speaking sessions, live performances and meet-and-greets between youth and charities.
So far, four such events have happened in Toronto and Winnipeg. Another is slated for Toronto’s Sony Centre April 29. Some 3,000 Ontario teens are expected to attend the event which features multiple TV celebs (Degrassi is well-represented), activists and motivational speakers, all there, fittingly, on a purely volunteer basis. (CMI relies on donations for funding).
Singer Suzie McNeil recently told Samaritanmag that she is scheduled to perform at the Toronto event. She previously appeared at the Winnipeg one with artists Jesse Labelle and Marianas Trench’s Matt Webb. “It’s so cool,” she says. “It’s basically like a seminar where kids come from high schools to a theatre, or wherever that they rent out. There are motivational speakers and guest performers, and after that the charities are all set up outside the theatre so the kids can go and sign up right there.”
What’s more, the April 29 shindig, dubbed “the world’s largest youth-run event” by CMI, will be webcast internationally on cmimovement.com, showing kids worldwide that volunteering does more than just enhance your karma. It serves as a gateway to important opportunities and friendships for everyone from at-risk youth and budding student leaders.
That the whole shebang began as a school project for Feldman back in 2008 at age 13 makes Count Me In’s grassroots success that much more impressive.
As the story goes, Feldman entered grade 9 at Westmount Collegiate Institute in his newly adopted community of Thornhill. Lacking an existing social network carried over from middle school, Feldman was dejected and approached a guidance counselor to request a transfer to another school. Instead, the counselor suggested Feldman sign up for various clubs and extracurricular activities.
“The more I got involved, the more I realized how few youth in my school were involved in anything,” Feldman says. “Because getting involved had made such a big difference in my life and led to so friendships, I wanted to help other kids in my school have this much fun. I had this idea to stage a small assembly in my own school to motivate kids to get involved in clubs in the community to feel that same great feeling that I had.
“I pitched that idea to my principal who suggested we keep the assembly small — maybe 100 students — but everyone loved the idea. Teachers from other schools in the community called to ask if they could come and we realized we had hit on something that wasn’t being served. So the growth from that small assembly into a national and international movement was just natural.”
Today, Feldman has had to put his Radio and Television Arts studies at Ryerson University on hold to accommodate CMI’s expansion and his own swelling itinerary as a motivational speaker — which begs the question: how is it possible that an extroverted, hyper-articulate dynamo like Feldman didn’t instantly accumulate a pile of new friends at Westmount CI?
He laughs. “I’ve been asked that many times. In middle school I was a total student leader and very involved. And I had moved around a lot because my parents had gotten divorced a few times. So I had definitely learned to embrace change.
“But at that time, after that move, I was suddenly faced with this new community. I didn’t know anyone and I felt more alone than I ever had in my life. And it doesn’t take long to fall into a depression when you are faced with a big change like that. I just had a very difficult time fitting in.”
Asked if he has a specific affinity for any charities or activists, Feldman demurs, launching into a thoughtful discourse on how all the various charities are meaningful, and how some people inspire him while others motivate him.
One thing is clear: Feldman is a natural diplomat and clearly one to watch.
“Our events that we stage — we are turning away from the word ‘conference’ — are all about promoting volunteerism and connecting students to those opportunities,” confirms Feldman, who also has an acting background.
“We have been playing around with expanding them on an international level because there has been interest. We hope the webcast of our upcoming event will help do that. We also have our app, 1billionhours, which helps to match student volunteers with causes, charities and organizations.
“But at the end of the day, we are a link. We don’t offer the volunteer opportunities. We are the link that inspires students to want to get involved in their own communities in whatever way that works for them. These events aren’t necessarily intended to get kids involved in Count Me In but to encourage kids to say ‘count me in’ when it comes to community service opportunities.”Zapatillas de baloncesto Nik