It was a conversation that not only changed his life but those of other youth seeking a rerouting in their lives and mental wellbeing.
Wrapping up his first year in the DAN Management and Organizational Studies program, Zachary Smith was lost.
“I was in a bad place. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I was sort of just going through the motions, sort of drifting,” said Smith, who dealt with depression and learning disabilities in his youth.
But a conversation with his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity big brother, Chris Rawlings, soon altered his outlook. In that moment, Smith saw the power of mentorship in his life.
“I do not think I shared anything with Zach he had not already heard,” said Rawlings, BMOS’15, who remembered how valuable the friendship of older peers was for him. “It was more that I took the time to talk to him at great length about what he was going through, how it was affecting him and what he really wanted from his time at Western.
“I told Zach life requires you to make hard choices in order to accomplish your goals, instead of simply floating through your time at Western taking the easy way out.”
Smith agreed. “He told me things my parents were telling me for years, but this was coming from a mentor – one who had no real skin in the game, but who just genuinely cared about me as a friend. It was much more powerful to me coming from someone I related to.
“After that, everything pretty much aligned and I understood, I got it, everything clicked. It was a complete 180 that changed my life.”
Following that conversation with his mentor, Smith took a year off school, returned home to the GTA and begin working construction. When he returned to Western to continue his studies, he was more focused on the future. With two more online classes to complete, he will graduate next spring.
Today, Smith continues to use his story of recovery and redemption to inspire hope in youth across the GTA through his involvement with Youth Assisting Youth, a non-profit that pairs at-risk youth with older mentors to act as role models.
His personal journey inspired a more physical one – one that could benefit others, as well as himself – when Smith returned to an idea that had been in the back of his mind for years. He wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
America’s second largest trail, the 4,270-kilometre trek begins in Campo, Calif., along the U.S./Mexico border, and winds its way northward through 25 national forests and seven national parks to its completion at the U.S/Canada border on the edge of Manning Park in British Columbia.
Complete with mountains, lakes and deserts, some days can see scorching heat hovering around 44 degree C, and the next you are treading through snow in temperatures around -6 degrees C.
Smith planned for almost a year – booking flights, obtaining his permits, buying gear.
“When I started, I knew I was taking the first steps of a long journey,” he said of his four-and-a-half-month excursion. “It was a personal journey and a time for me to think about my personal development, but I also met a lot of people along the way as well.”
Starting off solo in May, he often camped with others along the trail or made trips into town for supplies.
“There are a few parts of my personality that have become more nuanced through this,” added Smith of his more than 6.4 million-step odyssey. “I’m a much more patient person having lived in an environment where you can’t control many things.
“I definitely had some of the worst days of my life out there.”
The Toronto-based charity is dedicated to investing in the leaders of tomorrow and transforming the lives of at-risk and newcomer youth through the power of mentorship. For more than 40 years, it has paired volunteer young adult mentors aged 16-29, with youth ages 6-15 to engage in activities aimed to develop mind, body, character, and leadership skills.
The charity “connects volunteers to enriched mentorship experiences that profoundly impact the most vulnerable youth and their families in communities across the Greater Toronto and York Region.”
For Smith, a journey that started about himself became representative of something bigger.
“I never thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ The only thought I had was, ‘How can I do this?’” Smith said. “When I had a tough day it was never I need to get home, it was always how can I make this slightly more enjoyable or figure out a way to tough it out, and that’s what I did.”
Rawlings was not the least bit surprised when Smith told him was he was doing.
“The qualities which I respected when we first met were extremely evident in his decision –self-sacrifice, putting others first and determination,” he said. “The willingness to pursue something meaningful and sacrifice his time, as well as resources, for a cause larger than himself is a part of Zach’s DNA.
“He is not afraid to take on tough challenges and travel the road less explored. Zach is an exceptional young man and I hope his example motivates others to realize the value mentorship can provide young people.”
Currently, Smith is doing outreach with Youth Assisting Youth and sharing his story of mental wellness.
“Now that I’ve accomplished something worth talking about, it makes more sense to share my story,” he said. “It’s not that I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable. I talked to people about it one-on-one and helped with their issues. I could relate. But it makes sense to talk about it now that I’ve seen myself as coming full circle.
“It wasn’t an overnight thing; it was a process in coming to terms of taking care of myself. Being able to accomplish things, regardless of your past, is an important story to share.”