Ronaldo Mulitalo lived in a leaky Auckland garage with his mother and three brothers for six years as a child.
Victims of domestic violence, they had few belongings and were robbed while they slept on several occasions.
In 2013, they moved to Brisbane for a shot at a better life.
Ronaldo was just 13.
“I was dealing with things little kids shouldn’t see, and it can be really hard to press on sometimes,” the Sharks winger said of his childhood.
At 16, Mulitalo was talent-scouted as a future NRL star and made another life-changing move, this time to Sydney to live with a family he didn’t know.
The family was that of Jason Juretic, the chief executive of Stepping Stone House, a charity that provides housing for off-the-street youth.
“He [Mulitalo] is an outstanding human being, he came to live with us as a 16-year-old as a potential elite rugby league player,” Juretic said.
“He said his dream in life was if he ever became successful he wanted to use that platform to help others.
“He took home a very small income as a junior development player. On his own he’d go into the city, buy food and hand it out to people living on the street. He’d take four mates and he’d spend all his money, he did that off his own bat.”
Mulitalo lived with the family for four years until the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020.
But he wanted to do more, and so became an ambassador for Stepping Stone House.
“He’s got more than compassion, he’s got empathy. As a teenager he would move furniture into our refuges, would attend events with homeless kids, then when he became successful in the NRL he became an ambassador for our organisation,” Juretic said.
Mulitalo has been recognised for his work, taking out the NRL’s Ken Stephens Memorial award, which recognises outstanding community service.
Just this week, Mulitalo met a child in a shelter who didn’t have any shoes. He asked his sponsor for 17 new pairs of shoes and handed them out to the kids.
“Some of them are using them to walk 50km for charity, some didn’t have shoes to go to work and were so happy to get them – all those things we take for granted, they don’t,” Mulitalo said.
‘There is hope out there’
Recently, he also raised enough money to keep several kids off the street for a year — but his goal is to end youth homelessness.
“One hundred per cent we can do it. Everyone is struggling at the moment but even $5 can go a long way,” he said.
“Rugby league players run around with a football. I want to be more than that, I want to be like those strong men that go out and save lives and do right by people.
“I sat down with a young homeless girl — it wasn’t her fault, but she’d also been through things that no child should see. I told her about my story and she said it was refreshing to hear someone else has gone through similar hardships and to know that there is hope out there.
“That’s the whole reason I choose to do this, it’s not that I want the attention, it’s not for me — it’s for the kids that have been in the same situation as me, I want to be that role model that did it.”
The number of homeless children coming to Stepping Stone house has skyrocketed since the pandemic.
“When the 12 Sydney LGA’s were locked down we saw a tripling in the number of kids approaching us for help, and we were turning away 90 homeless children a month,” Juretic said.
“We haven’t seen it this high, this is exceptional and other charities are experiencing the same thing.
“We support 74 children and it’s like these children have been double traumatised. They’ve already lost their families, we’ve been building their community and now they’ve been cut off from them, so it’s really been a double whammy.”
The charity is concerned there will be another spike in children needing help post-COVID.
“At home it’s been very stressful — home schooling, mums and dads have lost their jobs, anxiety has increased. Unfortunately, domestic violence is occurring, kids are being abused, physically, verbally, emotionally and they just want to get out of that environment and go somewhere safe,” Juretic said.
“We’ve got five girls in one house all doing their HSC, now trying to get through home schooling around a kitchen table. These kids’ lives are on the line at the moment, especially in the coming weeks.”
Mulitalo, for his part, just wants to help provide others the opportunities he has been given.
“I was given a leg up, defeated the odds, and I wanted to repay them for what they’ve done for me. I liked helping out on my own and I want to represent kids like me and do the best for them,” Mulitalo said.
“I always reflect on how rugby league changed my life and gave me a lifeline. I still can’t get used to people coming up to me and asking for photos, but for me I want to see the changes I can make to people like me.”