teens

Kelly's son told her the words no parent wants to hear. Now, he's an Australian hero.

Warning: This article deals with sensitive issues around mental health and suicidal thoughts. For 24-hour crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Jackson Saunders sounds like your typical 11-year-old Melbourne boy: he likes playing football, riding his scooter and spends way too much time playing the video game Fortnite.

The eldest of four children, Jackson is an “old soul” and a “deep thinker” who “puts others before himself”, according to his mum Kelly Smorgon.

But before he found a way to make an impact on the world around him – and raise more than $40k for the Polished Man charity – Jackson experienced a darkness no child should have to feel, or parent should have to witness.

Three years ago, Kelly received a call from a teacher at Jackson’s school. The teacher couldn’t figure out why Jackson wasn’t able to focus in class. He wasn’t disruptive, overtired or distracted. Something just wasn’t right.

“We’ve always had a fairly open line of communication with our children so we asked him ‘What’s wrong?'” Kelly tells Mamamia. “We thought perhaps he had learning difficulties. And at that point, I think asking him direct questions gave him an opportunity to say that in fact he’d been planning to commit suicide. He had a date and a method in mind.”

Kelly and her husband Steve knew Jackson had been bullied – he’d often come home with bruises or cuts. As Jackson himself tells us, his own depression came out of trying to “stick up for people that were getting bullied, but that was the thing that made me get bullied”.

But Jackson’s parents had no idea of the extent to which it had escalated.

“Jackson being as sensitive as he is, it’s sometimes hard to know what to take seriously and what not to,” Kelly says. “He would come home often and say he got into an argument or a fight, and often it was because he would jump in to defend someone else or if he saw something that he thought wasn’t right. And I’d hear about that a lot and I’d be proud of him for that because that’s a value that you’d want your children to have, to stand up for others, and not to sit back and watch. But he started becoming the victim and he’d tell me about it.”

jackson saunders polished man
Kelly and her son Jackson. Image: Supplied
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Nothing could prepare Kelly for hearing her son tell her the depth of his struggles.

"It felt very surreal. And when an eight year old tells you that they want to die, you have to pause for a moment," Kelly recalls. "And then I guess I had to work through a process of questions with him to understand how valid what he was saying was, and how seriously to take it.

"Because your first assumption is that an eight-year-old doesn't understand what they're saying... He wanted to escape his bullies but he thought that he would be present in spirit with us as a family – so suicide he knew was an outlet, a way that he could end his own suffering but not understanding the finality of it, and that's a hard thing to try and tackle with an eight-year-old."

With something so serious and unexpected to deal with, Jackson's parents sought professional help for their son and moved him to another school. It was during this time that they found another outlet that would change Jackson's life: charity.

"We always talk about filling up the karma bucket," Kelly says. "Jackson was going through a bit of a hard time. We always knew that we wanted our kids to be charitable. So it was a good coping strategy for us for Jackson to focus his emotions outwardly in helping others."

After researching a number of charities, Jackson choose Polished Man. Run by not-for-profit group YGAP, Polished Man is an annual initiative that raises funds to end violence against children on a global scale.

For the month of October, men and women paint a nail "Polished Man blue" - or any colour for that matter - to raise awareness of the fact that one child dies every five minutes due to violence, and 90 percent of that violence is at the hands of men. All of the funds raised by individuals and groups go to trauma prevention and recovery programs for children who are at risk of, or have suffered from, violence.

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While Jackson himself hasn't experienced violence of this kind, he felt instantly connected to the idea of improving the lives of other children who are less fortunate.

"The reason I started it was because I really, really felt passionate about trying to stop that problem and think that it shouldn't even be a problem in the world," Jackson tells Mamamia.

Jackson is a man of his word. In the first year of Polished Man, nine-year-old Jackson raised $3000. The following year, 10-year-old Jackson raised $10,000. And now, in 2018, weeks before the campaign swings into full gear, Jackson has already raised $32,000 for the cause and is the leading fundraiser as it stands.

He started by painting nails of other children at his new school. By the second year, Jackson's nail painting bar had taken off, with the Polished Man team and many other children from his year level joining in.

"There was about 20 posters around the school and the principal knew about it and he went and did the local paper with me," Jackson says. "At lunchtime and recess every day there would be a queue going for about 100m… they'd give me a $10 note even."

In August 2018, acclaimed artist and family friend David Bromley insisted on helping Jackson get to his current target of $50,000. Bromley held an event at his studio and private home with Kate Ceberano among the celebrity performers, and an auction was held with the help of partners who had heard about Jackson's cause.

For the first time in public, Jackson told his full story to a captivated room. See him in action below:

Video via Sean McDonald

"I would not have been able to do it without my mum helping me go through my speech and sort of just 'cause she's been with me all the way," he says.

"I guess it was OK for me to speak about it because I know that everyone in the room would understand and they know that there are other kids like that out in the world."

His mum couldn't be prouder of his achievements.

"He's never stopped painting his nail. He's always fundraising, he's always talking about it," Kelly says. "He uses every opportunity at school to talk about it.

"He's just a little boy who is very softly spoken - you can tell that he's sensitive, he's very passionate about it. And it's very hard to say no to an 11-year-old, and he capitalises on it!"

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With an army of supporters on Jackson's side, Kelly has watched her son grow a sense of resilience and empowerment as he embarks upon his journey to change the world for the better.

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A post shared by Jackson Saunders (@the_real_jsaunders) on

"The high for us is seeing when something gets tough and how he can pause and think about, and be grateful for the life that he's got, and turn a negative into a positive," Kelly says. "This was a boy who used to cry over the Titanic. He would cry about tragedies in world history that he couldn't do anything about. I think he had a sense of hopelessness. And if he feels like he can make a difference then it gives him a natural feeling of gratitude and thankfulness for the life that he's got. It gives him the ability to ignore the negative things when they come up.

"Gradually, seeing the strength that he's getting to manage his emotions, that’s been the biggest reward for us. We are proud of his fundraising. That's amazing. And getting up and talking about it, that's fantastic, but seeing how he can cope with stress, that's the best thing – that's the best part of it."

When asked how he'll celebrate when he gets to his $50,000 mark – and it's definitely a when, given his determination – he has the most humble of answers.

"I don't think I need to celebrate too big. It's not about 'oh yeah I'm the top Polished Man ambassador'," Jackson says. "I always look back at this to make me feel really happy on the impact I've had on little kids' lives.

"Also, I've made an impact on a kid that I know's life – he was getting abused by his mum, now he's moved in with his dad who he has a really close relationship with. So I don't really think I'll be celebrating too gigantically or anything like that 'cause I know it's just about the kids."

Jackson Saunders, you are one remarkable young Polished Man.

To donate to Jackson's Polished Man page, visit https://polishedman.com/jacksonsaunders

To start your own individual or group Polished Man fundraising page, visit polishedman.com.

Mamamia's Commercial Editor Adam Bub is an ambassador for the Polished Man campaign.

If this post brings up an issues for you, please use the resources below:

Lifeline 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au

beyondblue 1300 22 4636 or beyondblue.org.au

Kids' Helpline 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au

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