The energy in the OISE auditorium yesterday was electric as Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, took to the stage in front of 300 students from high schools and middle schools across Toronto.

These young people gathered for a conference for the program Kielburger and his brother Craig started last year with the financial support of The Ron White Foundation and RBC, called Go Local.

The goal of the program: To create safer, stronger communities throughout Toronto by inspiring the youngest residents to take on leadership roles that create positive change in their communities.

“We’re so proud and so honoured to have you part of this movement,” Marc Kielburger told the crowd. “Today, we’re going to take your training to the next level.”

Since September, students at 21 schools in under-served neighbourhoods (20 in Toronto and one in Vancouver) have received leadership training from Free the Children representatives to equip them to tackle issues in their communities they are passionate about, such as gang violence, poverty and drug abuse.

Nick Rossing, a Grade 10 student at Sir Wilfred Laurier Collegiate Institute, attended Go Local workshops last September and subsequently headed up the program at his school.

“We’re focusing on aboriginal homelessness in our community, and we’ve held a few events to raise money for the First Nations Centre of Toronto,” he said.

Lenora Boci, who led her school’s Go Local initiative addressing discrimination in the student population, also found personal rewards.

“I was really shy, and it helped me break those barriers,” said the Grade 11 student at Vaughan Road Academy.

The program is expected to triple in size by next year.

“Our goal is to make this a truly domestic program in the next couple of years,” said Marc Kielburger. “We’re just blown away by what these students have done. They have these really compelling stories and in many cases, they’ve never been told before that they can be a leader, that they can make a difference. And they now realize that they can.”