Be it a passion they are born with or one they learn through circumstance, this year’s Young Australian of the Year finalists all share the same drive to better the world for others.

Key points:

  • Nine finalists are in the running for 2021 Young Australian of the Year
  • This year’s contenders all share a passion for helping others in need
  • The Australian of the Year awards will be broadcast live by the ABC on January 25

But with a variety of backgrounds behind their drive, including poverty, disability, misfortune or a foundation in humanitarianism, any award will be a footnote on what is already a long list of achievements.

A fighting spirit

When AFLW footballer Tayla Harris was taken, aged 12, by her father to a boxing gym to learn a “combat sport for self defence”, the coaches unearthed a fighting spirit.

At 23, the Victorian Young Australian of the Year remains undefeated in eight professional fights and holds the Australian super welterweight title.

Online abuse has driven high-profile athlete Tayla Harris to fight violence against women.(Supplied: Salty Dingo/Australian of the Year Awards)

“I loved the sport and learning about all the skills, discipline and hard work that it takes to become a fighter,” Harris said.

But it is was her prowess on the football field that brought Harris to the attention of the wider Australian public, becoming Carlton Football Club’s (CFC) leading goalkicker in 2019 and the AFLW Mark of the Year winner for two years running.

In 2019, a brilliantly captured image of Harris — hovering above the field in full extension after kicking a football — was tweeted by the AFL broadcaster.

Social media trolls swamped the feed with abusive, sexualised commentary, prompting the Seven Network to remove the image in an ill-fated response that drew widespread condemnation.

She went on to become an advocate for respectful relationships, visiting schools and workplaces through a CFC initiative to promote gender equality, and became an ambassador for Our Watch, an organisation aiming to prevent violence against women.

Harris has also co-authored a book entitled More Than a Kick, which provides young people with advice about social media and dealing with online bullying.

Slavery products in our kitchens

Modern slavery could be as close as the imported seafood and chocolate products we buy from the local supermarket, according to Western Australia’s Young Australian of the Year Grace Forrest.

The 27-year-old founding director of international abolition organisation, Walk Free, said Australia imports an estimated $12 billion worth of products derived from modern slavery annually.

“Modern slavery could also have touched the clothes on your back, the toys you buy your children or the device you are reading this on,” Ms Forrest said.

Grace Forrest addresses the One Young World Conference, London, in 2019.(Supplied: One Young World)

Ms Forrest said she first came face-to-face with modern slavery at 15 when she met children as young as three who had been rescued from human trafficking — an experience that “fundamentally” shifted her perspective of the world.

Ms Forrest’s all-female Walk Free team in 2018 successfully campaigned for the implementation of the Australian Modern Slavery Act, which requires businesses turning over more than $100 million annually to report their supply chain details along with any risks of exploitation.

Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index [GSI] estimates there are more than 40 million people living in slave conditions worldwide.

“Modern slavery is also an innately gendered issue; 70 per cent of victims are women and girls,” Ms Forrest said.

Ms Forrest speaks regularly on the topic and has presented several times for the United Nations, most recently to its Security Council on Walk Free’s new report, Stacked Odds.

She has also presented at the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings Women’s Forum, and has been appointed the UN Association of Australia’s youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for Anti-Slavery.

Rising above misfortune

Drawn to flying from a young age, Nathan Parker was captured by its demand to focus on the moment and leave everything else in the hangar.

That was until a military bus accident left him without his left hand and stole his dream to become a fighter pilot just days away from climbing into the cockpit.

High flyer: Nathan Parker won nine medals at the 2017 and 2018 Invictus Games.(Image: Facebook)

But rather than wallow in self-pity, Mr Parker returned to civilian flying in three months and resumed military and university duties within seven months.

“I think I’m far more passionate about flying now, especially due to the countless times I thought I would never fly again following the bus accident,” the NSW Young Australian of the Year said.

At 25, Mr Parker is a commercial pilot and senior Recreational Aviation Australia flying instructor in Lismore, pursuing a dream to fly aerobatics and provide joy flights for sick children.

He is also a motivational speaker and mentor who seeks to “assist, encourage and inspire as many people as possible to transform their toughest times into their greatest opportunities”.

While overcoming his own “loss”, Mr Parker represented Australia in the 2017 and 2018 Invictus Games where he won three golds, four silvers and two bronze, and found an affinity for indoor rowing.

His original love for flying, of course, knows no bounds.

“I have a number of big goals, including pursuing competition aerobatics and aspiring to win an Australian Aerobatic Championship,” he said.

Pursuing the ‘right side of history’

Ask 19-year-old climate action and youth empowerment advocate Toby Thorpe what he wants to be doing in 10 years and last on his list is fighting for change.

“I want to not have to worry and second-guess life decisions due to the impact of climate change,” he said.

At 19, Toby Thorpe is executive director at the Climate Justice Initiative.(Supplied: Salty Dingo/Australian of the Year Awards)

Mr Thorpe founded Tasmania’s first state-wide climate leaders’ conference across three cities when he was 14, attracting more than 350 students and professionals and encouraging them to lead sustainability projects for the environment and their communities.

He was later team leader of 14 Huonville High School students who were congratulated by world leaders in 2017 after designing a range of sustainable energy solutions for their school.

In recent years, the 2021 Tasmanian Young Australian of the Year led the island state’s Youth Delegation for two United Nations Climate Change Conferences.

He says his passion is driven by opportunities to “revolutionise our systems toward being fairer and more equal” but he is under no illusions about the complexities involved in making change.

“I try and leave frustration out of the equation when advocating for action on climate change because I believe that it is an issue that should not require debate and should not be about politics,” Mr Thorpe said.

Replacing ‘shame’ with opportunity

“No one should drop out of school, cease employment or disengage from society simply because of their period,” says South Australia’s Young Australian of the Year Isobel Marshall.

But for millions of young women across the globe, period poverty is a reality and one that the 22-year-old wants to end.

Isobel Marshall launched social enterprise business TABOO when she was 18.(Photo: Salty Dingo/Australian of the Year Awards)

After crowdfunding $56,000 in 2018, Ms Marshall and fellow South Australian Eloise Hall launched TABOO, a brand of ethically sourced organic pads and tampons.

All TABOO’s net profits are sent to its charity partner (One Girls) in Sierra Leone and Uganda, where they are used to fight period poverty.

Pads are also donated to Australian women, including those who have escaped domestic violence, girls “sent to school with no products”, those living in rural Australia with limited access, and women requiring emergency accommodation.

Ms Marshall said they travelled to Kenya and India in 2018 where they shadowed organisations working in areas including menstrual health care.

“We met girls who walk three hours everyday to get to school with nothing but dirty rags to soak up the blood and dealing with period cramps but nothing to help the pain,” she said.

“The trip was confronting but we left with a deep sense of conviction that we were right where we needed to be.”

Ms Marshall is also studying for a Bachelor of Surgery and a Bachelor of Medicine.

“The more I learn about the human body, the more I am convinced that its incredible abilities, including menstruation and reproduction, should be celebrated and respected, not shamed,” she said.

Saving humanity’s close relative

For a young Daniel Clarke, watching the late Steve Irwin sit in a tree as an orangutan handed him her baby was a “magical” sight he will never forget.

“That was the first time I saw how an orangutan can show such emotion towards a human,” Daniel said.

Daniel has cerebral palsy and, when he was approached as a child by the Starlight Foundation charity to make a wish, he did not request anything for himself but instead wanted to “save the orangutans in Borneo”.

Fast forward 14 years and Daniel, 24, and his brother, William, 22, have raised more than $900,000 to protect critically endangered orangutans in Sumatra and Borneo, sponsoring more than 50,000 hectares of habitat and adopting more than 100 animals.

The brothers have subsequently been named Queensland’s Young Australians of the Year.

William and Daniel Clarke are close to a goal of raising $1 million to protect orangutans.(Supplied: Salty Dingo/Australian of the Year Awards)

William said they had both always shared a love of wildlife and nature but when he witnessed Daniel’s determination to save the orangutan, he saw “an amazing opportunity” to help his brother.

Their literary work on orangutan conservation has been incorporated into the NSW Department of Education Curriculum and, to date, they have spoken in about 80 Australian schools.

Their efforts have been recognised by former US president Barack Obama, famed primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, and former prime minister John Howard, who arranged a $500,000 grant over four years towards orangutan protection after meeting Daniel.

With a goal of $1,000,000, the brothers said they wanted the animals to be safe with no threat from palm oil plantations and illegal logging, pointing out that if the orangutans can be saved from extinction, other animals in the same habitat could be saved as well.

Bridging the health gap

Aboriginal health practitioner Stuart McGrath knows all about poverty.

He had a nomadic upbringing in remote Northern Territory Indigenous communities where he described his own poverty as a “dark tunnel”.

“It took me roughly 15 years to get out of that cycle,” Mr McGrath said.

But the NT’s Young Australian of the Year also recognised at an early age that education was the “key to a good life”.

“That’s what separated me among my peers and my childhood friends — I figured out if I go to school every day it may be the way out,” Mr McGrath said.

“Break that cycle”: Yolngu nursing student Stuart McGrath and his daughters.(ABC News: Terry McDonald)

He moved to Galiwin’ku, a Yolngu community on Elcho Island north-east of Darwin, where his education progressed, before he schooling in Canberra and later studying in Darwin.

“Anyone can break that cycle,” Mr McGrath said.

When he graduates, Mr McGrath will become the first Yolngu registered nurse, a task he has undertaken while working full-time and bringing up two young girls.

The 29-year-old has also helped produce the Ask the Specialist podcast with the Menzies School of Health Research, and is committed to addressing preventable diseases in Indigenous communities.

“There are a lot of poor health outcomes where I’m from that aren’t even necessary because they are modifiable diseases, like rheumatic heart disease, diabetes, cardio diseases,” Mr McGrath said.

“They [community members] can make informed decisions and take ownership and responsibility on the information I can relay in my native tongue.”

He also has his eyes on postgraduate health studies with a focus on Aboriginal affairs policy making.

“That’s where the real impacts can be made,” Mr McGrath said.

Inspired by ‘resilient’ youth

The drive to help people can be “born inside you”, says Salvation Army youth worker Tara McClelland.

At 24, the ACT Young Australian of the Year puts her efforts into assisting 16-to-24-year-olds at risk of — or experiencing — homelessness, and increasing their skills while in crisis accommodation.

“[Young people] are so resilient,” Ms McClelland said.

“They can be dealt the toughest cards but they still manage to have a smile on their face and get going and make positive steps.”

Tara McClelland says she is proud to “walk beside and help” young people.(Supplied: Salty Dingo/Australian of the Year Awards)

Ms McClelland also volunteers for the Headspace Canberra Young Reference Group, applying for funding and organising events to support mental health, including school information sessions.

She is on the Canberra Youth Theatre’s Youth Artists Advisory Panel and has contributed to the Commissioner for Children and Young People’s work to reduce family violence.

“Sometimes young people are afraid to ask for help because they are afraid of judgement, but you don’t know what someone’s gone through, or what’s just under the surface,” Ms McClelland said.

Ms McClelland has been recognised with a 2019 Annual Yogie Award commendation and a nomination for 2020 Young Canberra Citizen of the Year.

“I want to be using this platform to reach as many young people as possible,” she said.