April 1, 2013 7:29 am

Count Me In brings stars, teens and charities together

Shane Feldman is the founder of this month's Count Me In Conference.

John R. Kennedy / Global News

TORONTO – Shane Feldman is busier than most teenagers this month.

The 18-year-old Ryerson University student is balancing his studies in the Radio and Television Arts program with family commitments, a social life, and the demands of staging Count Me In Conference (CMIC), a youth-empowerment event taking place April 17 near Toronto.

Feldman, founder and director of Count Me In, has a hand in every aspect of CMIC.

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“I think of Count Me In as my baby and I’m very protective of it,” he admits. “While I’m learning to delegate, my team of students are learning to juggle this job with their own school responsibilities and it’s not easy. I have to be ready to jump in at any moment and lend a hand.”

This year’s CMIC at the Mississauga Living Arts Centre will expose hundreds of students in Grades 8 to 12 to more than 20 celebrities, athletes and activists sharing unique stories. (The show will be broadcast online in May.)

The goal is to inspire young people to volunteer for causes that match their interests. To this end, the event includes a marketplace of organizations anxious to recruit eager volunteers.

“This is where students mingle with charity reps and actually sign up for volunteer opportunities. It’s vital that students find a charity or volunteer opportunity that speaks to them,” says Feldman.

Among those appearing on the CMIC stage this year are teen rapper Jake ‘Lil Jaxe’ Zeldin and Annaleise Carr, the youngest person to swim across Lake Ontario.

The event will be hosted by 18-year-old Degrassi star Luke Bilyk.

“He’s a great actor, he’s young, he has been involved in various charity projects, and he’s from Toronto,” says Feldman, who also sings the praises of Broadway and TV star Kristin Chenoweth, who recorded a video message that will be played at CMIC.

“Kristin founded a charity that gives a voice to pets and helps rescue animals. She has done some great work and it all started when she matched her passion for animals with a community service opportunity,” he says. “She is living the Count Me In lifestyle every day, and when we reached out to her she was excited to jump on board.”

Feldman, though, remains the star of CMIC and admits he enjoys the spotlight. “For as long as I can remember I have had a love of theatre and performing,” he says. “As a kid I took up magic as a hobby and apprenticed for awhile. I got involved in drama in middle school and it drove me to an arts-based high school where I pursued theatre.”

Feldman performed in a number of amateur theatre productions and was cast in the Toronto production of The Railway Children in 2011.

“My original plan was to continue down that road and see where it took me,” he says, “but when Count Me In started to grow everything changed. Between school and volunteering, I didn’t really have time to audition anymore.”

His show business dreams are not dead, though. “I definitely love acting and I’m sure I will try to jump back into the industry later in life.”

For now, Feldman is focused on Count Me In, which he founded five years ago after starting at a new school where he knew almost no one.

“After two weeks of spending lunch periods alone, I was ready to switch schools because I truly thought the school was the problem,” he recalls. “I made an appointment with my guidance counsellor to talk about transfer options but instead he ended up helping me sign up for all the clubs, councils, and student initiatives we thought I would be interested in. That changed everything for me.”

Feldman says he was motivated to do more. “I couldn’t imagine not wanting to share that feeling,” he explains. “I wanted every student at school to know what I now knew — that getting involved was the key to happiness.”

Earlier this year Feldman got involved with Disaster Volunteers of Ghana (DIVOG) and travelled to the West African nation to help build schools.

“The trip opened my eyes to a community that had so little and yet were the happiest people I had ever met,” he recalls. “I lived in a remote village with no running water or electricity, and even so there was this contagious positive attitude and love that I felt from the second I arrived.”

DIVOG founder and director Richard Yinkah is scheduled to be one of the speakers at CMIC.

A cursory look at CMIC oftens elicits comparisons to We Day, a youth empowerment initiative organized by Craig Kielburger’s Free the Children in 2007.

“Although on the surface Count Me In Conference may appear to be similar to other large youth events, there is no other event like it in the world,” counters Feldman. “First and foremost, the entire event is run by students, for students. We have a team of over 100 teenagers that do everything. If you look around at the event, you will see students everywhere running the massive show, which I personally think is the most empowering part of the day.”

Just as We Day has expanded to several cities in Canada and the U.S., Feldman hopes to take CMIC beyond Ontario’s borders.

“There are so many different volunteer opportunities out there and what’s missing is a link between teens and charities,” he says. “We are that link, and it’s time to truly reach out nationally.”

For more information go to cmicountmein.com.

© Shaw Media, 2013

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