Thirty-one-year-old Canberra-born youth worker Lisiate ‘Richie’ Unga has come along way from the streets of San Francisco, where, as a teenage gang member, he was drawn into a life of crime.
Today, street-savvy Richie is a 10-year veteran of the youth outreach sector, drawing on his difficult past to help put Canberra’s wayward young people back on the straight and narrow, and looking to establish his own model of care.
Richie’s story is a good example of how you never know the value of what life can sometimes dish up until much later.
Born to Tongan parents, Richie was fatherless by the age of six, when his dad died after being bashed in Civic. Three years later in 1996, his single mother moved the pair of them to East Palo Alto, in the Bay area, near San Francisco, to be near her father and younger sister.
A bigger culture shock one could not imagine, with crime riddled and poverty stricken East Palo Alto having the highest murder rate in the US.
“I was moved to a terrible city. I joined a street gang, and would say I was enticed into crime,” Richie remembers.
It was only supposed to be a six-month move, but his mother got a private nursing job and they ended up overstaying their visas and becoming illegal immigrants.
“In the gang, I started out as a lookout, then stealing bikes, then stealing cars. I was charged with Grand Theft Auto at age thirteen and started ongoing stints at Juvenile Hall,” Richie says.
Drug use was inevitable, and Richie began using ‘weed’ and Ecstasy and kept failing his ‘pee’ tests. When he was aged 18, and out on probation, he got caught and charged with possession of a firearm without a licence.
“I was sent to County, adult jail, but was picked up by Immigration and sent back to Australia,” Richie explained.
A ‘blessing in disguise’, the end of his US experience brought him home to the more benign environment of Canberra, where his uncle took him in.
But you don’t throw off the past simply by changing the scenery. Richie drifted through various jobs and even took on a carpentry apprenticeship but he continued to find himself in trouble and drinking too much.
Confronted with the question, “What would you do for free?”, he answered “youth worker”.
Easier said than done. With no qualifications other than the ‘street’, most of Richie’s job applications to the youth sector ended in knockbacks until the Tedd Noffs Foundation and the Richmond Fellowship both saw something that could be fostered.
He opted for the Richmond Fellowship, which had connections to the islander community in Canberra, and found himself working in residential care.
“The first day, kids refused to go to sleep and one threatened to cut herself. ‘What the hell is this?’ I thought,” Richie recalls.
‘Resi-care’ dealt with a lot of traumatised kids aged from five to 18 who were the victims of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and most of the time the work was just trying to keep them calm.
“Most of the time it was just keeping them at base line, it was hard to try to actually help them while you were trying to control their behaviour,” Richie says.
But the work came naturally to him and with a good mentor and training, Richie stuck with it.
“I saw myself sometimes in those kids,” he says. “A lot of people were trying to diagnose them with something, ADD or something, I thought it was just kids acting whatever they had been through, the hurt. They needed someone to talk to like a bigger brother or someone who actually shows them they care.”
After four years, the model of care changed from its strict approach to a more therapeutic one that gave kids more choices, which Richie says produced better results.
But in 2016, Richmond lost its contract and Richie moved on briefly to the Police Citizens Youth Club, running sports in after-school programs and then to his present employer, Canberra Youth Care, where he is a 24-hour youth outreach worker, although the role includes writing reports and managerial functions.
Now working with young people aged 12 -25, Richie has found greater satisfaction with the older age group, achieving successful outcomes helping them get off the streets into accommodation, find work or study and give them a sense of direction.
In resi-care, once kids turned 18 they would be gone without learning any life skills, but now he can be that big brother and help them negotiate Centrelink, apply for jobs and get them to interviews.
He has also been able to open up more about his past to establish rapport and provide a cautionary tale.
“I’ve been able to share more at Youth Care; at resi-care you’re just another authority figure but with Youth Care you’re almost like a big brother, a positive role model. I can say, ‘I understand where you’re coming from’, the rapport starts there,” Richie says.
But he’s learned to be discerning about what he reveals and to whom.
“I learnt quickly, certain kids I would tell my story to but others no, because they would say ‘you used to steal cars and you turned out OK’,” Richie says.
The job requires a fair dollop of tough love and straight talking, the kind that helped Richie. If his clients want help, then goals are set and have to be kept. There are rewards such as a movie, gym session or swim but only if the work gets done.
“You have to set standards, youth care is about improving their lives, not fun stuff,” Richie says. “You don’t have a place to stay? Let’s work on that before we go watch another movie.
“It’s all about that growth mindset, shifting that mindset, making them see what’s possible. If you really want it you can achieve it. Don’t bullshit. You say you want to lose wight and you’re not getting up every day to go to the gym, let me know when you’re ready.
“I’m trying set up a short cut for them but sometimes you just have to let things run their course until they see the light.”
And while Richie loves the work, it has its rough patches. He’s been spat at, physically attacked and had cars vandalised.
And while Canberra can hardly be compared to East Palo Alto, the problems youth face are still the same – anxiety, suicidal thoughts and depression – only here in the affluent national capital, they are more hidden.
A lack of affordable housing in particular is a growing concern, with only 25 emergency beds and 1100 young people aged 12-24 sleeping rough.
After a decade at the coalface, Richie is now looking to take what he has learned and apply his own ideas and experiences to develop his own a model of youth care. He is reaching out to the business community, forming networks and continuing his own self-development.
The goal is to eventually establish his own organisation with a working title of FLIP – Future Leaders in Progress – that could be pitched to government or attract corporate sponsorship.
FLIP would fill the gaps he sees in current services such as more after-hours care, school respite programs to keep troubled kids in learning, and a transitional program for Bimberi and AMC detainees.
“I’ve seen so many kids fall through the cracks, going in and out of Bimberi and the AMC and nothing happening for them,” Richie says.
He wants to be able to show government that if kids can be kept out of Bimberi and prison, it’s going to help the Canberra community.
Richie has turned his life around and knows he can help others do the same. If a street boy from East Palo Alto staring into the abyss of the US penal system can do it, anyone can.