Novocastrian and retired Paralympian Kurt Fearnley shared his hopes to improve education outcomes for children with disabilities while speaking at Maitland High School on Wednesday.
Mr Fearnley was joined by the state's three other NSW Australian of the Year award-winners at the school as part of an "honour tour".
Mr Fearnley, who was named the state's Australian of the Year in November, said he had found even more joy in "giving back" than excelling on the track.
A qualified PDHPE teacher, Mr Fearnley spoke about establishing a school in Nairobi that now provides education to more than 50 children with disabilities.
"When I started to travel started to see more and more children with the same disability as I had - that their life was dirt, their life was either sitting on the ground or being carried on the back of their mother ... You see yourself in that.
"I've received a lot of recognition in my life. If I didn't ever try and change that in some way I don't think I could ever take that recognition again."
He said people with disabilities were also all too often "left on the sidelines" in Australia, crediting an individual teacher with fighting for his place in a mainstream public school.
"My life changed because of what I got out of that school. My family were told and my teacher were told that I needed to be institutionalized," he said.
"The most meaningful parts of my life are the ones where you see a young person's life turn around in a moment."
NSW Young Australian of the Year Jarrod Wheatley, a former Blue Mountains youth worker, founded a charity to improve outcomes for children in out-of-home care. He encouraged students who want to make a positive difference to begin at their school.
"Local Hero of the Year" Sophie Smith, of Sydney, also told students not to be afraid of starting small. Ms Smith began fundraising for neonatal hospital equipment by handing out flyers in her neighbourhood asking people to run a half-marathon with her. A decade later she has raised $3 million.
NSW Senior Australian of the Year Heather Lee OAM, 92, who is the world champion race walker in her age group, said "age is no barrier" to achievement.
"You just need to start."
IN THE NEWS TODAY:
- Barry Toohey writes: Irate Knights fans need to get a grip
- Civil and Administrative Tribunal bans Hunter psychiatrist Anthony Slowiaczek over affair with patient
- NSW government fast-tracks $589m Newcastle gas import terminal
- Child killed in McCaffrey Drive car crash at New Lambton Heights
- Lyall Dix issued construction and occupation certificates for the Landmark building in 2008
- Coles, Woolworths begin constructing supermarkets in Huntlee and Cameron Park