Youth advocate Bernie Shakeshaft says the same spirit used to fight Australia's bushfire disaster should be harnessed to help disadvantaged kids.
The winner of Australia's 2020 Local Hero award, Mr Shakeshaft founded the BackTrack Youth Works program, turning around the lives of vulnerable kids in the regional NSW city of Armidale.
Starting with a shed and skills learned in the Northern Territory, he has helped cut Armidale's youth crime rate by more than 38 per cent and reconnected more than 1000 children with education, training and their families.
Mr Shakeshaft told the awards ceremony the power and potential of young people was seriously underestimated.
He listed one in four suffering from mental health problems, 28,000 kids homeless and one in five children under the age of 17 in no form of education or employment as key problems.
"For some, it's so bloody tough they take their own lives," he said.
"For me, that's not good enough, Australia. I reckon we can do better."
He urged an effort similar in scale to that of tacklng the bushfires.
"When a fire breaks out, you need to take action, and you need to do it quickly.
"Australia rallied together - volunteers, philanthropists, business, governments, and other nations.
"We knew what we had to do so we just got up and did it.
"Protecting our nation's most valuable assets - our kids - is no different."
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Australian Associated Press