Joel Thompson's volunteer work with the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre deserves mention in the lead-up to the NRL's 'Close the Gap' Round.

Raider Joel making a difference

Joel Thompson had his first police interview when he was 13. It was for breaking and entering. The Raiders star thought getting into trouble was normal. "My friends and cousins and I used to muck around all the time – we didn't know any differently,” he tells me. “I was definitely heading down the wrong track." That was until Joel's grandpa Albert and grandma Gloria came into his life and provided something he'd never had: stability.

"I was so lucky to have them... and that they came into my life when they did,” Joel says. “The kids I was hanging around with were going into juvenile detention and even jail. I owe my grandparents for everything I have. They were role models who taught me right from wrong. Nan never smoked or drank – until then I didn't know people like her existed."

When talking about the two people who saved his life, Joel's voice changes; it's almost too hard for him to put into words how much they mean to him. His pop passed away seven years ago, but Gloria is still a huge part of his life. He gratefully sports tattoos dedicated to both of them.

The Raiders second-rower is proudly Indigenous – and I thought I'd share a bit of his story heading into the NRL's dedicated ‘Close the Gap’ Round. Not because Joel is the only NRL player doing brilliant work in the community – as we all know and applaud, there are many players who make invaluable contributions to our communities – but there's something special about Joel's story and the way he's turned his life around. Life is hard enough when you get a good start – but to overcome an incredibly difficult childhood and go on to do amazing things is inspirational.

Joel began volunteering with the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC) last year. "I almost enjoy this work more than playing footy,” he says. “I love helping people so much. I come from humble beginnings and I know how hard it is to see light at the end of the tunnel. I get up each day and just love the work I'm doing."

Joel is a co-facilitator and project officer on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ACT Youth Program.

"I wanted to help out other young indigenous people – give them confidence and belief in themselves... encourage them to study, find jobs and lead healthy lifestyles. I'm committed to helping ‘Close the Gap’."

And already Joel’s participation is paying off.

“Five or six people who I've worked with have already found jobs or taken up study and I just can't describe how rewarding that is for me… another lady told me the other day that she'd started giving her kids healthier food – it’s a small step, but so important."

CEO of the AILC, Rochelle Towart, says they couldn’t believe their luck when Joel contacted them 15 months ago begging to be involved. “When he rang up I thought it was so cool. I’m a huge Canberra Raiders fan! Two weeks after Joel got back from his honeymoon he went to a camp at Cairns and got his Certificate 2 in Indigenous Leadership. His first day in the office we gave him filing to do and he was so excited – he’d never done anything like it, and we thought it was hilarious!”

Rochelle confirms that Joel is now an integral part of the Centre.

“He told us that he didn’t want to just sign autographs and shake hands with young people – he wanted to make a real difference. When he came on board we even developed a new leadership program with him – he wrote a lot of the guidelines and it’s his baby. The impact he’s had since starting here you just can’t measure.”

Life for Joel is good now – in fact it’s almost perfect! He's got a gorgeous family, Amy and Bella – and a daughter on the way. He joins the Dragons next year and hopes to continue his volunteer work there. I hope for his sake and for the Illawarra region that he does – because it will be a huge loss for Indigenous Australia, and it will keep that appalling gap just a little bit wider, if he doesn't.