OAKLEY -- The visitor who was challenging thousands of Freedom High School students to make a lasting difference in their world could have been one of them.
From the shoulder-length blond hair spilling out of a ball cap and ear buds to the prominent tats, Mike Smith looked every part the skateboarder.
And he is -- but these days he skates with a purpose much larger than mastering the next trick.
"Do you want to be remembered as a leader?" Smith asked the gymnasium full of teens at a Friday assembly on the Oakley campus. "(Or) do you want to be that guy who was a little too cool to care?"
A motivational speaker from Nebraska, Smith is on a months-long tour delivering his message of compassion and encouragement to teens.
At 30, Smith still looks so young that a school secretary that morning had mistaken him for a student, and with words like "dude" and "gnarly" a staple of his vocabulary, he sounds every bit like the demographic he targets.
But behind the laid-back persona is a driving concern for youth and those in need that led Smith to found two nonprofits by the time he was 26, one of them an outreach to the homeless that has expanded to cities from Seattle to New Jersey.
He's skateboarded across Nebraska three times raising money for Skate for Change, which distributes socks, food and other basic supplies to those on the streets.
In his talks, he focuses on the journey to those accomplishments, recalling his metamorphosis from an insecure high school freshman struggling to fit in to homecoming king and track star with an elitist attitude.
"I went from this tiny little kid, and I turned into this jerk kid, this punk kid who thought he was better than anybody else," he said.
It took the death of a friend in a car crash for Smith, then 17, to take stock of the person he had become.
"I hated what I'd turned into," he said. "I gotta change, I gotta be about different things."
He risked the disapproval of those in his clique to befriend Calvin, a younger student with a developmental disability, and as the bond between the teens deepened Smith saw rejection through fresh eyes.
"I hated the way they would judge this little dude just because he was different," he said of his friends. "He mattered to me, he needed to be part of our crew." And as Smith set an example of acceptance, other students followed suit.
When he took up a collection to buy Calvin the Christmas presents his family couldn't afford, many teens contributed, and the atmosphere on campus began to change.
A group of teens began having lunch once a week with special education students; Smith and others came up with a list of 100 activities they could do that didn't involve drinking or drugs.
And by valuing people over temporal teenage interests like clothes and cellphones, Smith resolved to change the view he says many adults have of the younger generation.
"You know what they say about you guys?" he told a rapt audience. "They say you're selfish, that you're not going to be kids who change the world, that you only care about stuff."
To prove the naysayers wrong, you have to take risks, do things that don't come naturally, Smith said.
"If you want to be a part of something bigger than yourself, you've got to be willing to be uncomfortable," he said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.