Why would a police officer from Tasmania pack more than 150 pairs of soccer boots and hop on an 18-hour flight to an ISIS recruitment hotbed?
Because in two decades, a Hollywood film about the Syrian war will hit cinemas and people will suddenly feel compelled to ask themselves one question: “What was I doing while hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were being murdered by terrorists?”
Don’t worry yet, it’s only a hypothetical – the movie, that is.
A 26-year-old Will Smith was scrolling through his social media feed when he was confronted with the question.
“I have the ability, the time and the money to be able to do something,” he recalled thinking to himself.
Mr Smith wasn’t delusional. He knew he couldn’t single-handedly stop Syria’s conflict, but there was something else he could do (we’ll get to that later).
Mr Smith was already going beyond his normal crime-fighting duties to help at-risk youth get out of a negative rut.
It all started back in 2008 when his 15-year-old self was sitting in a school assembly just mucking around with friends, flicking paper at students and “being a stupid, egotistical year 9 boy”.
Someone had got up to speak about volunteering opportunities with Edmund Rice Camps, a not-for-profit that offers children from broken or financially struggling families, foster-care kids and other disadvantaged or troubled youth the chance to be paired up with mentors for fun-filled activities during school holidays.
Mr Smith had no intention of lending a hand but a teacher thought otherwise, telling him to attend one of their summer programs. The theory was that it would be good for him to think about other people for a change.
So he did as he was told and, to his surprise, was very thankful for the experience, despite being laughed at by his footy mates for having to volunteer during the summer break.
“I remember finishing that camp and connecting so well with a 12-year-old boy I was paired with, and just coming home and spilling everything about it to my parents,” Mr Smith said.
“It was a time when pretty much the only two words I ever spoke to my parents were ‘good’ when they asked me how my day was and ‘yes’ to everything else.”
He’s been volunteering at the camp ever since. It was where he first developed a passion for helping people.
Fast-track 10 years to 2019 and Mr Smith is talking with a friend about the genuine, tangible impact they are having on their local community.
Mr Smith proceeded to find the kids he’d mentored, via social media.
Mind you, after becoming a police officer, he connected Tasmania Police to Edmund Rice Camps so young people who had bad experiences with law enforcement could have positive encounters by being paired up with recruits and put through the Tasmanian Police Academy. That’s been running for six years.
To ensure young people were being changed for the better, Mr Smith launched JCP Empowering Youth, a not-for-profit where he and a team of volunteers actively involve themselves in the lives of youth who are deemed at risk of offending.
They’re put through camps that challenge them physically and mentally, teach them about leadership and ways to stay motivated.
Mentors then go into young people’s lives to teach them how to apply in their own environment what they learned at the camps.
“It’s not about creating the next prime minister,” Mr Smith said.
“It’s about just trying to avoid high-level youth offending and high-level negative impact on our community here in Tasmania.”
There’s no question Mr Smith had his hands full but that didn’t stop him wanting to create even more impact – this time on the other side of the world.
The decision to travel to the Syria-Lebanon border worried his family.
Mr Smith wanted to help young Syrians who’d escaped their war-torn homeland and felt directionless or overwhelmed by negative emotions.
Desiring to work in areas known for Islamic State recruitment, he headed for northern Lebanon in June 2019, just six months after establishing JCP Empowering Youth.
Armed with about 50 soccer balls and over 150 pairs of soccer shoes, he managed to entice some 200 refugee children living near the Syrian border to switch off on family or life concerns and join in some soccer games.
Seems simple, but it had a profound impact.
By starting teams, creating training sessions and launching soccer tournaments over six weeks, Mr Smith gave refugee children an experience they would not ordinarily have had.
“There were times where I sat back in the games and the competitions that we set up and just looked back and enjoyed the laughter and the fun that was being had,” he said.
“I would always finish each day feeling so inspired … I’m sitting here right now looking at photos of them on my wall because they were just so happy.”
Mr Smith was awarded Tasmania’s Young Australian of the Year in October, placing him in the running for the national honour set to be announced on January 25. He is one of the local heroes The New Daily is celebrating in the lead up to Australia Day.