Outback MagazineOutback Magazine


Saint of the streets

Story Sue Williams

ImageThrough his love of the land, Father Chris Riley is giving city street kids a second chance at life when many people wouldn't give them a second thought.

Some of them are violent. Most have been addicted to hard drugs. A number have been terrorising our cities as brutal gang members. Many steal. At least one has been convicted of murder. Yet for Father Chris Riley, the man who's become known throughout the country as the patron saint of kids, they're all children who deserve a second chance. And, together with the help of Australians living well beyond the fringes of our cities, he's determined to give them one.

For Father Chris is a country boy, and he believes firmly in the regenerative power of the land to help children whose lives have been shattered by abusive parents, drugs and alcohol, violence, uncaring families and cruelty - and often a combination of all six. "To look after these kids properly, you have to take them well away from the big cities," says Father Chris. "Take them away from all the temptations of crime, from the influence of rotten parents or abusive families, from the lure of drugs and drink. You have to take them to a safe, clean and caring environment, and then you work together on healing the past, and preparing for the future."

Father Chris, 48, started on his mission to help kids 30 years ago. When working in Sydney as a newly qualified teacher, he started roaming the streets of the city at night. He was shocked by what he found. Hundreds of boys and girls, some as young as 12, were eking out a miserable living on the streets, mostly having been kicked out by their parents or fleeing from abuse at home. He started taking out food with him and, after the shocking revelations of the 1989 Burdekin Report that talked of up to 25,000 children in Australia being homeless, he gradually began a whole organisation dedicated to helping the nation's street kids.

ImageToday, he runs Youth Off The Streets (Youth), a vast $8 million charitable organisation mostly funded by private donations, which operates more than 20 projects in NSW, Victoria and Queensland. He hopes to expand soon into the rest of Australia. The linchpin of Youth are the farms he's set up in country areas, where youngsters live together under supervision, learning living skills as well as helping out around the place. In the case of the farms around NSW's southern highlands, they all go to a specially set up school nearby, while other kids will take lessons at nearby TAFEs or local schools.

In the past, the three-time nominee for Australian of the Year has appealed for locals to come in to help at the farms, to chat to the kids, play pool with them, help them with their reading, come and cook them a meal - and generally show them that not all adults are 'out to get them'. Invariably, he's been inundated. "I wanted to take the kids to the country, because country people are generally extremely generous with their time," says Father Chris, who hails from Echuca on the Murray River. "They'll take the time to show them something, or talk to them about life. They're ready to listen and give advice. And they always seem prepared to give people a second chance."

Sue Williams is the author of Mean Streets, Kind Heart: The Father Chris Riley Story (HarperCollins, RRP $29.95)." Story end

Full story: OUTBACK, April/May 2003

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