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Frequently Asked Questions

Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? What are your hobbies?

I’ve lived in Toronto, Canada all my life with my mother and father. It’s great to live in such a diverse and progressive city. I go to Lakefield College School near Peterborough, Ontario. My grandparents live in Alberta, Canada.

I love sports, especially tennis and skiing. As the old saying goes: “healthy body, healthy mind.”

In addition, I am a huge follower of astronomy, and I am interested in being the first person to land on Mars. I started taking flying lessons when I was nine years old and went to space camps. I loved every minute of it. I’m the kind of person who likes to try new things, and there isn’t anything much newer than traveling to another planet!

I even challenged myself and skydived form 15,000 feet recently. I love to scuba dive and have achieved my PADI Advanced Open Water certification

 
You started fundraising when you were just a child. You went onto raise millions of dollars for children’s causes and became an author and UNICEF Children’s Ambassador. What inspires you to do such things?

I became involved when I was four years old. A devastating earthquake had ravaged the province of Gujarat in India in January 2001. My parents were reading a newspaper story about the event and told me about a priest from our very own religious community who, tragically enough, had died in the rubble. I immediately thought of how different – and how much more difficult - my life would be without parents.

I happened to be eating a clementine orange at that time, and I suggested I could help out by raising funds by selling them door to door in my neighbourhood. I always had one parent or grandparent with me. Some people said “no,” but others said “yes,” and I managed to raise $350. Of course, at that time, it seemed like an absolute fortune.

I’m a very lucky person. But from an early age, I could see that millions of other young people around the world didn’t have it so good. I realized two specific things: that I had to get involved and make a difference, and that I would need a lot of help in order to make that change. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

When did you realize the talents you have for public speaking and fundraising? Was there a particular moment?

I don’t think there was a specific instant where I said to myself, “Okay, this is what I’m pretty good at.” I think it evolved over time. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to organizations such as URISA Canada, FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance USA, Indo-Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Haitian and Indonesian communities of Toronto, Canada. But when I traveled to central Africa and Latin America and speak to hundreds of children, it really changed my perspective. I think those were the moments when I realized that public speaking is something I was going to continue to do in the future.

As for fundraising, I sold handmade acrylic plates and helped build a school in Tanzania for HIV/AIDS orphans, sold cookie boxes to raise over $50,000 for the affected people and children of Hurricane-devastated Haiti, raised $13,000 for the victims of the Tsunami in South-East Asia, as well as more than $50,000 for the World Partnership Walk. It was when CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) later matched the $50,000 dollar for dollar, I knew fundraising was something I had a knack for.

In 2004, I also issued a UNICEF Canada Kids Earthquake Challenge (www.unicef.ca), urging Canadian children to raise a minimum of $100 each to achieve a total goal of $1 million. By the end, we raised a total of $50,000 and as a result, in January 2005, the Toronto District School Board presented me and the President and CEO of UNICEF Canada with a cheque for $1.3 million. The Government of Canada then matched this, making the final donation nearly $4 million.

One thing leads to another. When you know that you have a talent, put it to good use!

What is a typical day in the life of Bilaal Rajan?

Well, school takes up a lot of my time. I’m in the 12th grade and on the Scholar with Distinction Honour Roll since I started high school. If I’m not engaged with a sports team at Lakefield that day, I’ll get many of my other Student Head responsibilities taken care of, like Admissions, Yearbook, Habitat for Humanity, or International Affairs. I'll have something to eat and catch up on some reading. When there’s time after school, I also like to hang out with friends and check my emails.

After dinner, I’ll complete my homework and prepare for such things as my next speaking engagement or media interview and send out some fundraising emails and letters. I also write for my blog as well. I do a lot of reading at night to keep me up-to-date with events taking place in the world.

Of course, when you are engaged in so many different things, you realize that there’s no such thing as a “typical” day!

You often quote Mahatma Gandhi’s famous saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  What does this mean to you? 

Gandhi is a huge inspiration for me, not only because my family is originally from India, which he helped free from British domination, but because of the values he stood for: peace, justice and unity.

His quote really symbolizes what people throughout the world need to do in order to make change. They have to take action and lead by example. Unfortunately, the pages of history are filled with so-called “leaders” who used violence and oppression to make their own version of change, creating something that was always worse than the situation that existed before it. This only sends humanity on a downward spiral.

If we want a better world, than we have to be better people and rise above ourselves, work with others, challenge outdated systems and ways of doing things, and speak out to have our voices heard. The independence movement in India threw off the shackles of the greatest empire the world had ever known – and they did it peacefully without firing a single gun shot.

Your recent book is called Making Change: Tips from an Underage Overachiever. What is the book about and what made you write it?

I really wanted to share my public speaking and fundraising experiences with other people, and I thought the best way to do that was to write a book. There wasn’t any specific plan in mind. For months I just recorded by thoughts verbally into a microphone and later wrote them down on paper. It was all pretty spontaneous, actually.

Making Change was primarily written especially for young people. I wanted them to learn how possible – and how much fun – it really is to make a difference. In the book, I focus on being creative, being bold, and never taking “no” for an answer. Thinking big is one of the main themes of my book.

But most importantly, I wanted to show people that no matter who you are, where you’re from, what language you speak, or what your age, you can change the world. My ultimate goal is to inspire one million kids in the next three years to maximize their true potential and get involved in creating a better world.

In the first section, I focus on the planning of workable, innovative, and most importantly, enjoyable fundraising activities that are designed not only to raise money for important children’s causes, but awareness as well. In the second part, I discuss my eight key principles to maximizing your potential, which include setting goals, working productively with others, focusing on what’s important and visualizing your success.

I hope that young people read it and become inspired to make change.

If you could give some advice to young people who want to make a difference in the world, what would it be?
 
I think there are a few things I’d tell them. The first and most important is that no matter how young you are, you can change the world. Some of history’s greatest accomplishments were achieved by young people. And especially in the early 21st century, when youth enjoy a level of rights and freedoms that were unheard of just a few decades ago, they are evermore empowered to make change. Never let anyone tell you that being young is a barrier.

Secondly, I would tell youth that when it comes to setting goals, the sky should be the limit. Do you know that famous saying, “Get Real”? Well, do yourself a favour in life: don’t! Because once you “get real,” you are limiting yourself and your ability to reach your personal, spiritual, academic, health, financial and social goals. Why cut yourself short? Reach as high as you can. You may not even get all the way there, but you’ll still be farther along that you were previously.

Lastly, I would remind kids that no matter what you do in life, do something that you love. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, than you’re obviously not going to do it to the best of your ability. The things in life I do well are those which I also love to do. That’s the great thing about making change: it can take so many different forms. If fundraising isn’t your cup of tea, that what about writing and blogging, or public speaking, or holding public meetings, or lobbying elected officials, or organizing events? There are literally hundreds of things you can do to make change. The goal is to find those things you really enjoy doing.

Who do you look up to? Who is your role model?

I mentioned Mahatma Gandhi earlier. Another individual I respect tremendously is His Highness Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims. Throughout his life, he has endeavored to improve the social, political and economic conditions of literally millions of people around the world. More specifically, His Highness is particularly interested in eradicating extreme poverty, advancing women’s rights, promoting education for children throughout the world, and creating a more pluralistic and peaceful global community. He also shares my love for skiing, as His Highness participated in the 1960 and 1964 Winter Olympics in the sport!

I am also inspired by the last election victory of Barack Obama. It’s amazing to think that forty-five years ago, thousands of people marched to Washington, DC and heard a young, Southern preacher – Dr. Martin Luther King, another huge role model – tell the world about his dream.

Who would have thought that less than fifty years later in the United States, after centuries of oppression and injustice, African-Americans would have one of their own elected to lead that nation. It was a terribly long journey, but through hard work and struggle, they did the unimaginable. As one writer recently stated: “Rosa Parks sat down so Martin Luther King could march so Barrack Obama could run so the children of tomorrow could fly.”

If you can’t get inspired by that, that I wouldn’t know what to tell you.

What are your future plans?

There are a few projects I’m working on right now. I established an endowment fund at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario from the advance of my book. Each year, a student who completes the greatest number of hours of community volunteer service receives a special award provided by the endowment fund and is recognized by his or her teachers and principal at graduation.

It created a lot of buzz and had a big impact on the community. Young people who never even thought of volunteering before suddenly became inspired and realized how much fun it really can be.

As I have been selected on the Student Leadership Team in addition to my responsibilities for school mentioned above, I know this year will be a very challenging yet personally rewarding one.

In addition, I have some important media interviews coming up in March 2009 with several radio and TV shows in the United States. I’m also looking forward to speaking publicly in New York and Los Angeles very soon, which will allow me to spread the message and hopefully inspire others to make change.

Currently, I am starting to get all my organization members to start thinking and developing ideas for the Fifth Annual Barefoot challenge that takes place in June 2013. I’m also looking forward to speaking publicly in San Diego and England very soon, which will allow me to spread the message and hopefully inspire others to make change.

Finally, I’m continuing with the fundraising efforts and planning to send out hundreds of additional letters to corporations in Canada. Even in tough economic times, I know they’ll be willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved in making a difference in the lives of children all over the world. When it comes to making change, every single step forward counts.