It’s never the end: student defies the odds to turn his life around

From left: Lenore Cannon, Jon Cannon, Jose Unilongo, Febe Unilongo and Heather MacMillan

Most parents are proud of their kids on graduation day, but for Febe Unilongo – whose son Jose’s journey through adolescence included expulsion, a two-year good behavior bond, time in the Cobham Juvenile Justice Centre and sitting the HSC twice – watching him graduate with his second degree was an emotional experience.

“I prayed that Jose would just finish high school, but now he has two degrees, a great job and has grown into a wonderful kind young man. Sometimes I cry tears of joy,” says Febe.

Up until Year 10, Jose Unilongo – a graduate of the Bachelor of Housing and Bachelor of Construction programs – was a top student with good grades. But things started to quickly go wrong when, at 14, he fell into the wrong crowd and got into trouble with the law. He soon found himself expelled and unable to sit the School Certificate.

“I was in limbo and no school would take me. Eventually, my godfather told me about Redeemer Baptist School, a school with a history of taking in troubled kids. I went in for an interview with their Principal Jon – whose family I would later live with. Jon was the only one who would give me a chance. He saw my potential when no one else did,” says Jose.

But starting at Redeemer Baptist School didn’t solve all of Jose’s problems. After a short time at the school he got into trouble again, breaking his police curfew and, in turn, his good behavior bond.

“After I completed my exams in 2009, I left Jon and his wife Lenore’s house without saying a word. I ended up meeting up with some friends and getting arrested three days later – the charges meant I had to go to court and be charged as an adult,” Jose explains.

“Jon found out, but instead of being angry, he supported me throughout the whole thing.”

Jon Cannon, Principal of Redeemer Baptist School also didn’t expel Jose. Instead he – in a deal done to get Jose out of juvenile detention, and with the full support of his mother Febe – agreed to let Jose live with him and his family.

“While this might sounds unique, it wasn’t the first time we’d housed students,” says Jon.  

“The school’s Home Stay Program has been going for 35 years. Essentially the program allows students to live with families instead of in boarding houses. This way, they get to be part of a family structure.”

Jose’s mum Febe – who was a single mum and battling breast cancer at the time – says she found it hard to let Jose live away from her, but says she knew this was the best chance her son had of turning his life around.

“It was so hard, but I knew letting him live with Jon and Lenore was the best way I could support my son,” says Febe.

Febe’s sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed, with Jose saying a large part of his motivation for turning his life around was the sacrifices his mother had made.

“My mum sacrificed so much to raise me. She actually studied back in the Philippines and got a Bachelor of Science (Food and Nutrition) before migrating to Australia, but the qualification wasn’t recognised here and she didn’t have the opportunity to do further study. Thinking about that made me realise the kind of opportunity that I had,” says Jose.

With so much support and love around him, Jose’s results started to improve. His aptitude for design also started to shine with his Year 12 Design and Technology project being selected as one of the state’s best and displayed at the Powerhouse Museum.

“I used to have a tendency to give up when things got hard, but with the support network that I had at the time I started to get things finished. When my project was selected as one of the best in the state, I suppose I started, for the first time, to believe that I had potential,” Jose says.

Upon completing his HSC – which he repeated at Redeemer Baptist in order to help his chances of getting into the course he wanted to – he was accepted into Western Sydney University’s Bachelor of Housing program. Later he enrolled in the Bachelor of Construction, graduating from both programs this year.

The other big reason Jose turned his life around was a young woman named Victoria, who he met seven years ago - they are now engaged.

“Victoria is such a smart woman and has always encouraged me and inspired me to better myself,” says Jose.

Jose is now working full-time at a large construction company in the city. He is also saving for a wedding and to build a house on land he purchased with his fiancé.

“I look back today and think about all of the people who didn’t give up on me and all of the people who helped me get to the place I am today,” says Jose.

“For any kids out there in a similar situation to what I was, it’s not the end. There is always the opportunity to improve and always people there willing to help. You’ll get there one day, and look back on all the tough times and know that you got through it.”


16 November 2017

Emma Sandham, Senior Media Officer