Father Chris Riley giving kids a second chance - part two of the story

HE pledged to work with the most poor and abused of young people when he took his holy vows.

It’s a commitment that Fr Riley has never forgotten.

His work has gained national and international recognition with the dedicated priest recently honoured with a Lions International Humanitarian Award ranking him alongside other world-renowned community workers including Mother Theresa.

While he welcomes the honour, he remains firmly focused on reaching out to troubled youth and he is looking to the community to take more responsibility for a better future for young people.

Fr Riley said a lack of connectedness was one of the greatest challenges for young people.

“Many people believe that young people are disconnecting from adults at an incredible rate, but the reality is that adults are disconnecting from the kids and we do it at their own peril,” he said.

“They (youth) feel they don’t belong and so they build alliances that involve them in anti-social behaviour and violence.

“In a recent survey teenagers were asked who were their heroes and the overwhelming response was ‘my mother’, closely followed by ‘my father’.

“They were also asked what more they wanted from their family and the majority answered to spend more time with their family.

“I think we have to encourage communities to take control of their youth by developing a supportive community.”

And Fr Riley is leading the way through an ever-growing mix of activities and support services.

He said the greatest challenge of Youth off the Streets (YOTS) was to overcome stereotypes of young people and shaking people from their apathy as far as the needs of young people were concerned.

Fr Riley said that some of the highlights of his work had included the development of a trainees program, which employed young people from a troubled community to work within that community.

He said trainees selected under the program were better able to influence and understand the people they worked with.

Fr Riley said two trainees had graduated as youth workers while two others would soon graduate.

“Our place in Aceh was also a great achievement. We got into a strong partnership with a large Muslim group in Indonesia and focused on good outcomes for the kids by working with what was common between us rather than what was different.

“Many of these kids are now at university and a couple have graduated.”

Fr Riley said other achievements had included service-learning projects where young people in the Southern Highlands were involved in running camps for children with disabilities.

He said they were also involved in visiting elderly people in the community, planting trees, cleaning waterways and walking dogs from the pound.

Fr Riley said the charitable work boosted the self-esteem of the young people in the care of YOTS.

He said he was equally inspired seeing so many of the girls supported by YOTS become “such great mothers, even though they did not have their mothers in their lives”.

Fr Riley is quick to emphasise there is “so much more to do” as far as the problem of youth homelessness is concerned.

He said that while he didn’t often get to reflect he had experienced some great outcomes as well as tragedies and failures.

Fr Riley’s comments come as he grieves the loss of “one of the kids we thought we had achieved so much with” who was sadly found dead in a hotel toilet a drug overdose.

“He had spent a great deal of time with us as we thought he had overcome his drug problems,” he said.

“He worked through his school certificate and higher school certificate and had completed three years of a social work degree. He had great support from his mother and had achieved so much.

“His death is devastating.”

But Fr Riley continues to be driven by his faith and a determination to help other young people.

“Our outreach services continue to achieve some great results,” he said.

“But our kids are in major trouble around this country - many are overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness.

“My vision is to provide infrastructure to keep kids safe.

“This will take the form of massive youth centres in troubled areas that are open 24 hours so young people can be kept safe at any time.

“I also want to keep establishing schools of excellence as this is a positive way out of a cycle of abuse.

“School achievement is one of the biggest indicators of a troubled young person getting their life together.”