Jonathan Okwir and Corrin Varady. Picture: Supplied

Young Australian philanthropist, academic and former model Corrin Varady will never forget his first encounter with Ugandan former child soldier Jonathan Okwir.

"He was collecting charcoal on the side of the road, he had very little hope and certainly no dreams . . . he was in many ways quite hollowed out," Varady, 30, recalls over the phone during a return visit to his home town of Sydney.

"The emotions were very dark and he was struggling to see happiness. When I told him 'Don't worry, we'll work together on this', he looked at me very cynically and said 'I've heard a lot of people tell me that. It's much easier to be said than to be done'."

Varady, who divides his time between the African Great Lakes region, Beirut - where he will soon complete his PhD on peacemaking in Lebanon at the London School of Economics - and the UK, first arrived in Africa as a volunteer English teacher 10 years ago.

In 2008, he founded the World Youth Education Trust, which provides education and leadership programs to vulnerable youths and former child soldiers, with Okwir becoming the foundation's first sponsored child.

Okwir's journey to find inner peace is explored in Varady's self-produced feature-length documentary The Road to Freedom Peak, which highlights the aftermath of conflict and use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) guerrilla group.

Voiced by Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond, Gladiator), the made-for-Foxtel television special follows Varady and Okwir - who was abducted by the LRA from his family when he was 10 years old - as they cycle from the border of Uganda and Sudan to Mt Kilimanjaro (also known as Freedom Peak) in Tanzania, before ending up in London to raise awareness of these young people's plight.

Varady says that since opening up about his painful past, Okwir, now 22, has shown himself to be a natural-born leader with aspirations for himself and his people (he is completing his final two years of secondary education in Uganda, with plans to study business or commerce at the University of NSW).

"I think what I see in Jonathan is his trust in people has changed," Varady says.

"He's seen action, he's seen people - not just in our organisation but other donors and people all over the world - who have rallied behind him in support.

"And he's happy. You know, the strangest thing is that I sit with Jonathan, especially after my accident (Varady survived a near- fatal car crash in the US in February last year), and he was counselling me about the idea of happiness.

"The Dalai Lama speaks about it in a very esoteric way but someone like Jonathan starts talking to you about happiness and it is very transformative, even for you.

"His ability to find happiness in every moment is incredible."

Varady, who is also working on a documentary about the late Nelson Mandela, hopes The Road to Freedom Peak resonates with audiences on a deeply personal level, during a period of "charity fatigue".

"There are areas our charity is working in - particularly Uganda, Sudan and Congo - where there are difficult parts, yes, but there is some hope there," he offers.

"Don't cut off aid and don't think that it's a hopeless situation. I think the bond that Jonathan and I have beyond the sponsor and sponsored level is very human, and because of that, it's important for people to understand that this isn't just NGO (non-governmental organisations) land, this isn't just 'Go there, it's charity, it's work and it's a mission'.

"There is a human element to this, and we need to continue this human element."

The West Australian

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