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There's no such thing as a bad kid

by Sue Williams

One bitterly cold winter's night, with the rain gushing down in icy sheets, Father Chris Riley made his way wearily out on to the streets of Sydney to take food and hot drinks to the homeless children huddled in the city centre.

Handing out soup to the 80-odd young streetkids gathered there, he realised he was getting soaked to the skin. So did one of the kids.

"Farvs," the boy said to Father Chris, using the youngsters' favourite moniker for the priest who's dedicated his life to helping them, "why don't you go home now?" Father Chris smiled back at him. "No, I'm fine," he said. "You go and take cover."

But the boy shook his head, slipped off his coat and handed it to the priest. "Take this," he said roughly. "Sorry about the smell." Father Chris felt his throat grow tight with emotion. These kids had virtually nothing, yet they were willing to do anything for anyone who showed them the faintest kindness.

It's been a lesson Father Chris has learnt again and again over his past 12 years of working with streetkids. Now with his charitable foundation Youth Off The Streets having helped an estimated 45,000 streetkids via its 20 projects - ranging from farms and a school in NSW's southern highlands to a refuge, detox centre and food van in Sydney, from a house in Queensland for kids to programs in Victoria - he's still taken aback by how well streetkids can respond to compassion.

For most of them are only there because of terrible abuse at home, neglect by parents, cruelty by their family or misery alleviated by drugs and alcohol. "Most streetkids don't leave home," says Father Chris, now the subject of a new book about his life, Mean Streets, Kind Heart: The Father Chris Riley Story. "Home leaves them.

"It's important that we understand why they are there, how most people they've ever loved and trusted have turned their backs on them, and how important it is for them to see that others care. They have to know they are loved, and we have to have the courage to expect greatness from them."

Many have responded to Youth Off The Streets' support, and have gone back to school to finish their education and now lead happy, fulfilled and useful lives, often with families of their own. For some, however, Father Chris's help has just come too late. Their grim pasts have left them too damaged, and their self-esteem, hopes and dreams too shattered ever to be properly healed.

But Father Chris never gives up on any kid. "There's no such thing as a bad kid," he says in his own dearly-held mantra. "Only bad environments, families and circumstances."

Father Chris, a Salesian who started his mission while teaching in Melbourne and Sydney, believes every kid deserves a second chance. And through his story of growing up a man with a deep faith and a stubborn determination to do his best by "his kids", as well as through the sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic and always inspirational stories of those streetkids, it's easy to realise that anything's possible - as long as you care enough.

Mean Streets, Kind Heart: The Father Chris Riley Story is published by HarperCollins and is released on March 1 (rrp $29.95). A substantial percentage of the proceeds go straight back to Youth Off The Streets.

Youth off the Streets
Faith makes Fr Chris strong - author (Catholic Weekly 23/2/03)
Saving street kids: Fr Chris honoured (Catholic Weekly 15/12/02)

21 Feb 2003