By Eric Peterson
Daily Herald Correspondent
In one day, 15,000 socially conscious teenagers saw more celebrities than most adults four times their age are likely to have seen in their lives.
But the inaugural We Day Illinois, held at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, wasn't about celebrity-gawking. For the stars, from host Selena Gomez to veteran actor Martin Sheen, to the kids, it was about a shared dedication to community service and global improvement.
"I've been an actor all my life," Sheen told the throng. "In fact, I have no conscious memory of not being an actor. But being an activist is what keeps me alive."
He told the eager, energetic audience that while helping people around the world get food, clothing and shelter is important, it is meaningless if not accompanied by justice, healing and mercy.
Kicked off by Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner, the five-hour event included prominent entertainment figures Common, Tyrese Gibson, Marlee Matlin, Dennis Haysbert and Magic Johnson before Jennifer Hudson's high-energy musical finale.
The nation will get to see much of the program in a prime time TV special to air at 7 p.m. Aug. 21 on ABC-TV.
Despite the star power present, 15-year-old Crystal Salas, of Aurora, said the most inspiring parts of the program were the personal stories of Illinois teens who'd launched small initiatives that grew and grew -- everything from anti-bullying initiatives to the economic empowerment of people in developing nations.
Haysbert, who played President David Palmer on the TV series "24" and is now the Allstate spokesman, said water conservation in dry climates is the issue closest to his heart, given how many people's lives depend on it.
Whether enough clean water will be available for a growing population is one of life's big unknowns, he said.
"The one resource we will always have is you," Haysbert told the teens. "There are no unsolvable problems, only problems that are yet to be solved."
To be invited to We Day, students had to demonstrate they took part in both a local project and international project.
Some in the audience, like students from Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy in Aurora, were spotlighted for their work. Rodgers Academy held a massive donation drive for the local food pantry, and hosted another fundraiser called "Goatees for Goats." Students wore false goatees to buy goats for people in impoverished rural areas overseas, where the animals represent significant economic power, teacher Rebecca Carver said.
Her students claimed to love everything they saw at We Day, but 12-year-old Toni Kendrick said she'd been especially looking forward to Marlee Matlin.
"I think she's awesome!" Kendrick said.
Matlin, through an interpreter, addressed the specific challenges of her youth. Told her deafness would never allow her a career in acting, Matlin nevertheless joined a youth theater group in Glenview where she once received direct encouragement from Henry Winkler. A little more than eight years later, she held an Academy Award in her hand.
"Dreams can come true," Matlin said. "It happened to me and it can definitely happen to you."
View article here