One youth the story behind OneChild

  • June 8, 2007
{mosimage}RICHMOND HILL, Ont. - When I arrived at a Richmond Hill house where a cash donation was being made to a Catholic organization for abused children in the Philippines, I was met by young lady in red skirt and black top. I noticed she was petite and beautiful but as soon as she handed me a name tag, I forgot about her.
I was looking for Cheryl Perera, founder and president of OneChild , who must surely be one of the matronly ladies eating dessert around the dinner table.

But speech time came and lo be hold, the petite girl turned out to be Perera.

The story of OneChild is the story of one youth who, instead of milking her privileged life uses it to help the grossly underprivileged in an extraordinary way.

It all started in 2002 when Perera, then 17, was in Grade 10 at St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill. She was tasked to research a project on a charity called Free the Children. Perera read a book about the organization's founder, Craig Kielburger, also of Thornhill who started his organization with his brother Marc when he was a high school student. She was moved by a chapter on Patpong, the red-light district in Thailand where child prostitution is rampant.

"I was angry and I had to do something," she said, invoking her Catholicism, which instilled in her "the best aspects of the faith — compassion and service."

Logistically, Perera could not go to Thailand. But she decided to go to her home country, Sri Lanka, where the child sex trade is also prevalent. She contacted the National Child Protection Authority and told them she wanted to help with the fight against sex offenders.

When she arrived, Professor Harendra De Silva, chairman of the NCPA, asked her to act as a decoy in a sting operation that was being organized. Perera readily accepted.

"In Sri Lanka, a child does not need to dress up (to attract pedophiles). They need to look like a child. I was wearing a long blue T-shirt that had a small kitten on the side to have my childhood looked at as a commodity," said Perera.

The operation netted a notorious 40-year-old pedophile, who was married and had two children. Perera was rewarded with a one-year offer as President Mahinda Rajapaksa's Nominee on Child Protection. That alone would have been more than enough for Perera to complete her project with flying colours, but her bravery was growing into philanthropy. Her experience had made her realize that though the child sex trade was negligible in Canada, many Canadians joined other Western sex tourists who preyed on children in poor countries, thus the problem was not "theirs," it was "ours."

Perera kept telling herself that one child exploited is one child too many and she vowed to fight the scourge.

Perera went about mobilizing friends and convincing adults to support her quest to start an organization that provided youth with the empowerment and tools to fight the global child sex trade, which affects millions of children and is a $7 billion (U.S.) business in Asia alone, she said.

"As a youth-run organization, we had the (difficult) task of convincing adults to listen to us and acknowledge that children and youth have much to bring to the table," Perera said.

OneChild was born in 2004 in Toronto and it soon spread across Canada and the United States where there are chapters in schools and youth clubs, while other members work individually to raise money and go on missions to rescue enslaved kids in affected countries.

Since her first trip to Sri Lanka, Perera, now accompanied by her new posse of OneChild members, has been to seven countries, including the Philippines, where her group helped rescue some abused children last year and is helping raise funds to build a sanctuary for the rescued kids.

Perera is now a 22-year-old third-year student at the University of Toronto where the demands of a double major in political science and ethics, society and law would have slowed most of her peers down, but she defiantly says: "My work with OneChild is my passion. I have a supportive team, which eases the workload. It can be incredibly challenging, but I think of the children that we are helping, and it all becomes worthwhile."

Perera and her team are busy organizing a trip for next summer when they will go back to the Philippines to see progress on the house for abused children the organization is helping fund.

Perera also hopes that trip will take her to Cambodia and Thailand, the country whose child sex exploitation led her into philanthropy in the first place.

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