Connor Watson, an NRL star, was moved to action following the tragic loss of his cousin to suicide. Determined to make a difference, Watson established the Boots for a Brighter Future program, which now enters its sixth year as a key part of the NRL's Indigenous Round. The initiative features NRL stars wearing boots adorned with Indigenous artwork created by talented young artists from New South Wales and Queensland.
The program aims to address the alarming statistics surrounding mental health issues among Indigenous youths, where suicide ranks as the leading cause of death for those aged five to 17. Through art, Boots for a Brighter Future provides a platform for young individuals to express themselves, connect with their culture, and destigmatize conversations about mental health.
"That was the catalyst for this organisation starting, I just wanted to make a change," Watson said.
"When you look at the statistics for mental health issues across the world it's an issue, but particularly in Indigenous cultures and particularly here in Australia in rural communities across New South Wales and Australia.
"That's why we started, when we lost him and we looked at the statistics we could see it was a really big issue and we had to do what we could to help."
The numbers are beyond confronting — suicide is the number one killer for Indigenous youths between five and 17.
Watson's program is aimed at allowing young people to express themselves and their experience through the artwork on the boots, as well as fostering links between them, their culture and community, as well as destigmatising feelings around mental health.
"That's why it's important to push that and that's what the Boots for Brighter Futures program is all about, it's about bringing awareness to the issue and assisting the prevention of it any way we can," Watson said.
"We want to improve mental health outcomes for young Indigenous people through art."
This year, artists from renowned institutions such as Belmont High School, The Entrance High School, Kirinari Youth Hostel, and Northern Peninsula Area State College were selected to create unique designs for the boots. NRL stars, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, including Cameron Munster, Harry Grant, Patrick Carrigan, Payne Haas, and Josh Addo-Carr, will wear the boots during matches before they are auctioned to raise funds for the program.
The program has witnessed remarkable outcomes, with participants gaining confidence and forming deep bonds. For instance, a reserved student from The Entrance High School found solace and friendship among Indigenous peers, leading to increased self-assurance and connections with other girls.
"We're trying to create an opportunity for kids to express themselves, express their culture, be really proud and connected to who they are and we find the outcomes we get from this program, the way [they] open up and the confidence they get from this program – it's pretty cool to see," Watson said.
"One of the girls from The Entrance high school, her teacher told us she was really quiet and only close with a couple of people.
"She attended this class with all the Indigenous kids where they can all connect because they have this mutual ground, they learn more about each other and their own culture.
"So there's this bond that connects them and it helped her go from being really quiet to a lot more confident and making friends with a lot of other girls.
Boots for a Brighter Future is an initiative under the Cultural Choice Association, founded by Watson and his family, aiming to raise awareness and support for Indigenous youth at risk of suicide. Watson plans to expand the program to rural areas in New South Wales and Queensland, while using his own experiences to break down the stigma surrounding mental health conversations.
By empowering Indigenous youth through art and providing vital mental health support, Boots for a Brighter Future is making a significant impact. Connor Watson's commitment and the transformative power of this program bring hope for a brighter future for all.
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Photo Courtesy ABC News
Courtesy ABC News