One young woman and the fun-filled steps she took to change the world around her. (Yes, fun-filled!)

By Jesse Mintz

 

On a grey London day, six years ago, crowds on the South Bank of the River Thames were treated to an unusual sight hurrying past the London Eye. The same curiosity was also glimpsed by tourists outside Buckingham Palace and pedestrians over a mile away from the royal landmark, perusing the shops on Oxford Street.

“Was that an egg being chased by a chicken that just passed me,” they all wondered.

Or, was it the egg chasing the chicken?

The answer to this age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, lay in the north of the city at Hampstead Heath Park, where a breathless group of secondary school students gathered at the finish line of a charity run for WE. (More on that later.)

Back out on the city sidewalks-turned-track, people congregated to catch a peek of a giant yellow chicken, running alongside the human-sized egg.

And that, according to Hannah Owen, was precisely the point.

Hannah—then 13—planned her first fundraiser for WE to get people’s attention. The spectacle saw Hannah dressed as a chicken chasing a friend in an egg costume. Behind the pair were more friends, there at the ready to answer questions about the charity race and collect donations for the cause that inspired the event: WE Charity.

The group raised more than £3,000 that day—a sum later doubled by Virgin Atlantic, a corporate contributor to the fundraiser. The total collected would be enough for Hannah and contributors to build a school in a developing community with WE.

Hannah was first introduced to WE one year earlier. Sitting in her school gymnasium in North London, she listened as two young men spoke about child labour around the world and how young people in the United Kingdom could make a difference. Now seven years later, one detail continues to stick out to Hannah: a volunteer trip to Kenya.

When the bell rang at the end of the presentation, her classmates rushed off to lunch; Hannah stayed. She made a beeline for the presenters and asked to sign-up.

That night, with her mom by her side, Hannah learned everything she could about WE. She poured over the website and studied videos of WE’s co-founder, Craig Kielburger, whose own journey began as a 12-year-old activist.

A few months later, Hannah was on a plane to Kenya with fellow youth volunteers.

On the ground, Hannah had long conversations with community members, while helping dig the foundation for a new maternity wing of the local clinic. She learned about local daily life and Maasai traditions by immersing herself in the regional culture. And, her perspective widened; the more Hannah’s eyes were opened to issues ranging from lack of food and clean water to limits on accessible healthcare, the more she understood the importance—and impact—of the sustainable development practices at the core of WE Villages.

Back home, the real transformation unfolded.

“Hannah was formidable,” says Sarah-Jane Fenton, Hannah’s mother, when asked about her daughter’s return. She recalls how her daughter shared stories from the trip almost every night over dinner following Kenya. She would excitedly reminisce about her experiences, eager to teach her parents and sister about what she’d seen.

“That trip was a spark,” Hannah confirms. Recruitment to her cause was a two-pronged mission. At home, she worked on getting her parents involved (it worked, the foursome travelled to Kenya as a family, while father Clive Owen spoke at WE Day UK in 2016). At school, she and her sister Eve—an immediate fan—started a WE club.

Her classmates at King Alfred School were familiar with charity-led initiatives like Red Nose Day and Comic Relief, but Hannah’s vision for the WE club was something different. She wanted kids to be in control: they would choose the cause and they would choose the action. Their collective creativity would connect the two.

Interest took off. “People were willing to get involved, to be artsy,” she says. “We weren’t sticking to the same old boring things. People got a chance to be creative, to be themselves and to be passionate.” And, most importantly to Hannah, the students were given the opportunity to step up as the leaders—their way.

After all, adults don’t do chicken and egg runs. “We wanted to laugh and not feel like doing good was only a grown-up thing.”

After the charity race came a Monopoly-inspired fundraiser, with Hannah and friends collecting donations in fancy dress (think monocle and bowler hat), while visiting a map of iconic landmarks a la the board game. During her senior year of high school, Hannah’s fundraising ideas took on a prom theme, complete with ‘80s style dresses and tuxedos.

This wonderfully bizarre string of annual events were intended to raise the profile of the club and their work. Each was paired with a video, social media campaign and a school-wide assembly to get others involved. Momentum soon grew, and with it, membership. In between the annual fundraisers were bake sales and carnivals—all raising money for the type of life-changing development work Hannah had seen in Kenya.

Having gotten her family involved, then the entire school, Hannah was invited to join the International Youth Advisory Committee. As part of the committee, Hannah attended board meetings and took part in discussions that would steer the WE movement. This was a huge step for a young woman, who just years earlier had struggled with confidence and social anxiety.

“When you’re a kid, there’s so much pressure. Everyone is so aware of how they come across, so worried of embarrassing themselves […] I was very vulnerable,” she reflects. “As soon as I got the chance to express myself while the focus was on the cause, and not on me, it was the most liberating thing. It allowed me to pursue my passion without being judged.”

Hannah’s personal growth wasn’t lost on her mom. She shares, “[Hannah] was inspired, she put in some serious thought as to why she wanted to participate, to extend herself. I looked on and thought it was brilliant.”

Hannah graduated from high school last year; today, her sister Eve leads the school’s WE club. The handover makes Sarah-Jane proud. “There’s a lovely ripple effect of these things.”

And it all started with Hannah, a chicken costume and the WE’s club very first event.

As for which came first, the chicken or the egg, the egg won the race that day. But the real revelation was the answer to what Hannah and crew discovered to be the true quandary: could young people stand up and make a difference in the world?

Yes. You can change the world and transform yourself—and you can do it all while having fun.

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