North York man hikes to Canada from Mexico to support youth mental health


Quitting was never an option for Zachary Smith during his hike to Canada from Mexico.

Smith, a 23-year-old North York resident, embarked on a 4,270-kilometre journey along the Pacific Crest Trail for a purpose — to support youth mental health.

Throughout most of his youth, he struggled with clinical depression and learning disabilities. However, his mindset toward his challenges changed when he met Chris Rawlings, his mentor at Western University.

“Essentially, he helped me put everything into perspective of, like, taking responsibility for my actions, taking care of myself and understanding it was my life I was sort of throwing away if I didn’t get my act together,” Smith said. “The reason why it was so powerful for me was these were all things my parents taught me my entire life, but having it come from someone who I viewed was on the same level and who I looked up to … made it much more impactful.”

As his tenure at Western wound down, Smith realized it was a good time to do something big, and he began planning his walk along the trail, which consists of deserts, mountains, rivers and forests.

Initially, Smith planned for the trip to be a personal one, but he decided to use the opportunity to help other youth.

According to Children's Mental Health Ontario, 70 per cent of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence, and as many as one in five Ontario children and youth will experience some form of mental health problem.

Smith searched for a local organization to help raise funds and awareness for, and came across Youth Assisting Youth.

The non-profit organization pairs volunteer young adult mentors aged 16 to 29 with youth aged six to 15, to engage in activities aimed to develop mind, body, character and leadership skills.

“He called … and said he wanted to donate the funds to us, and it was like, 'Really, you’re going to walk across from Mexico to Canada and you’re doing it in honour of us? That’s phenomenal,'” said Sally Spencer, CEO at Youth Assisting Youth. “It was right out of the blue.”

Smith kicked off his journey May 8 and returned Sept. 23. The walk was challenging, and he was in constant pain.

“My feet were swollen, my knees were swollen. My legs were shaking from exhaustion all the time. I had insane blisters,” he said. “It was a challenge to stay motivated, though, so I had to dig deep and understand why I was doing it, and having answered that question — and the answer being because I said I was going to do it — and I wanted to follow through on it.”

Rawlings, 32, said it reflects a lot on Smith’s character that he’s willing to do things for others.

“He’s able to look at the forest and not just focus on the trees,” he said. “He’s got a bigger objective. He knows he’s going to have to do some things that are perhaps less than ideal, and that most people wouldn’t be willing to hack through, in order to achieve a larger goal, and I think it aligns well with Zach’s personality and his dedication to accomplish his goals.”

Smith said more youth should get involved in mentoring.

“Older youth should care about mentoring younger youth, because of the impact they can make on someone’s life,” he said. “They can literally change someone’s life. I had my life changed that way.”

Meanwhile, Spencer said her organization needs more male volunteers, and it will use funds raised by Smith to help recruit and train new mentors. 

“I have 400 kids on the wait-list. Of those 400, 75 per cent of them are boys, and they need a male mentor,” she said. “Every child could use a mentor.”

Smith’s fundraising campaign has raised about $6,500 to date, $1,000 shy of his $7,500 goal.