RENÉE Lamoureux’s African moment came six years before the singer-songwriter set foot on the continent.
In her early 20s, Lamoureux went to the Caribbean with her then-boyfriend and his family. The group decided to book an excursion that took them from their all-inclusive resort on a drive to some local villages. Lamoureux was dumbstruck by the poverty and miserable living conditions.
"I felt just sick. We were staying at this fancy place and they took us around like we were visiting a zoo. The people were so poor. I was in tears for the entire trip."
In 2008, Lamoureux and her performing partner, Keith Macpherson, travelled to Kenya as part of a Free the Children building project. The duo, better known as local pop-folk-country duo Keith and Renée, first heard about the Canadian humanitarian group’s work when they were playing the U.S. college circuit.
Lamoureux was signing CDs at a California college when a student, oblivious to our country’s size, asked if she knew someone named Roxanne Joyal.
"She said she was taking this (CD) to someone in Canada and did I know her," the singer says with a laugh. It turns out she did. The two women had been high school classmates in Îles des Chênes.
The student told Lamoureux about Me To We, a group co-founded by Marc Kielburger, Joyal’s husband, who also helped form Free the Children. Lamoureux took that as a sign to get back in touch with Joyal. They become close and Kielburger later asked if the performers would like to be part of his organization’s humanitarian efforts. While in Kenya, the performers swung hammers during the day and sang for volunteers and locals at night.
She says her Kenyan experiences were echoes of her earlier life-altering trip to the slums of the Dominican Republic.
"There was a little girl who would hang out at the school where we were. Her name was Naomi. She asked me one day if I’d ever eaten a watermelon and what that was like. I was shocked. Here was something I took for granted and she couldn’t imagine it. I felt so guilty."
The performers travelled to Kenya in 2008 and 2009. They also signed on to become Canadian musical ambassadors for Free the Children, travelling to more than 300 high schools across the country. They’d perform and give a motivational talk to the student body in the morning and meet directly with student leaders in the afternoon.
The experience taught Lamoureux how much potential teenagers have.
"We all have a voice. We all have a chance to make a difference. It’s small steps, small random acts of kindness that make a difference.
"Not everyone is going to do what Marc and Craig (Kielburger) did, but we can all do something. I definitely believe we all have the opportunity to do something."
Lamoureux says she was struck that neither income nor social status appeared to be barriers to student involvement.
"There were kids from all over that wanted to make a difference. We were really lucky we got to meet kids you just know you’re going to hear about someday."
Their humanitarian work paid unexpected work benefits for Keith & Renée. A song they wrote based on their work in Kenya, The One, earned a place on David Suzuki’s Playlist for the Planet CD. Their 2007 CD Revolution, she says, was informed by their commitment to social justice issues.
"Honest to God, I’m just this girl from Îles des Chênes. I thought I’d be married at 23 and have all these kids at home. But my music has led me to a different place.
"I don’t consider myself a humanitarian on the same level as a lot of these people. But I’ve learned how other people live and how all of us can make a difference. It just makes you want to work harder. I’m so inspired to do more because of what I’ve seen."