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, The Riot Act reports.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.