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'I find a purpose in that': Walker's mission to create positive change

Having experienced the anguish of losing people close to him, Rabbitohs star Cody Walker is on a crusade to improve mental health for First Nations youth.

Walker has long been an Indigenous leader - dedicating time to causes like NRL School to Work, Aboriginal Employment, Nanga Mai Marri (Dream Big) and South Sydney's extensive community initiatives.

And the four-time Blues five-eighth has now helped launch Rising Warriors, a program that uses "rugby league as a bit of a vehicle for kids to relate to their mental health," as Walker explained.

The 31-year-old's care and effort towards creating positive change have resulted in his second consecutive nomination for the annual Ken Stephen Medal, proudly brought to you by Your Local Club.

He said the catalyst for Rising Warriors, which Walker has set up alongside Bundjalung Baygal Warriors RLFC members and Headspace Grafton, was the alarming suicide rate in Aboriginal communities.

"I just felt worthless sitting back doing nothing about it, so one of the things I wanted to do was create opportunities in our communities across where I grew up," the proud Bundjalung and Yuin man said.

The key aim of Rising Warriors, which officially kicked off in late June with sessions for the Casino Cougars' under-16 and 18 teams, is to eliminate the stigma of mental ill-health and spark conversations.

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"[We're] using rugby league [to show] how they can relate that back to their mental health," said Walker, a Casino junior.

"Using little drills where you have to communicate … you're doing it on your own but then you find it really, really hard to do the drill.

"But then you add different people into it and you find that it becomes easy. If you relate that back to everyday life - if you're in there doing it on your own, you find things very, very hard to do.

"Whereas if you have a support network and help … you find it's easy to get through ... It was great to just get back there and be out there in the community with my local junior team.

"I was telling my story of struggles from when I grew up to be an NRL footballer. Just to let them know that I was in a similar position to what they were, growing up in the same town, same school.

"So I understood the struggles to be an NRL footballer, but also, not letting that define who I was [or] define my career path."

For Walker, inspiring the youth is a "great passion".

"Whether it be in the sporting [arena], school or employment, I just find great enjoyment out of helping young Aboriginal kids," he said.

"I find a purpose in that. Yes, I'm living out a childhood dream as an NRL footballer, but if I wasn't doing what I do now, I'd be definitely working with children in some form."

If Walker wins the fan vote - which will decide one of four Ken Stephen Medal finalists and closes on August 8 - he will bring more joy and motivation to the Casino Cougars with a $3500 cash prize.

"Some of my fondest memories are playing junior footy with not only friends from school, but also cousins that I grew up with," he said.

"But most importantly, being able to play with my brothers. One of them is two years older, so there were times where I'd back up two years to play in the same footy side as him.

"But even outside of footy, we were always at the junior fields – we lived up the road from there – just playing footy on the weekends with a lot of cousins. It was probably the most enjoyable part of living in Casino and playing footy at that club."

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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