At the age of seven, Daniel Chant was diagonised with autism spectrum disorder.  Mum Lisa who currently works as a senior lecturer in interprofessional health at AUT, and has prior experience in the health industry, followed up on a few leads.  From which she was granted funding by the Taikura Trust to help Daniel head along to the kids’ camp programme held at Camp Shakespear. 

Daniel remembers his first week at camp like it was yesterday.  “I was scared and afraid that I wouldn’t be good at anything and I remember picking up the bow and arrow, it was so much bigger than me” and with a smile on his face, he realised how silly he’d been, he says, “but as I pulled and released each arrow, over and over again, it felt really good…. I was pretty good at this” with a smirk on his face. 

That experience was the first of many challenges for Daniel as he quickly learned that camp would require meeting new people, listening to and following camp leader instructions and giving every activity a go.  On one occasion, the rest of the camp kids were challenged to a wall climb which Daniel recalls as one of his hardest days at camp.  “I was climbing the wall and as I reached the overhang I wanted to give up” he says, and with a glum look in his eyes followed by a victorious tone he continues, “I was really tired but I kept going and when I got to the top I was so happy.”

Daniel had alluded to this earlier in our interview but it certainly takes more than one experience to make something permanent.  So that’s how it was for him, every holiday since 2008, Daniel has attended all of the camp programmes held over the school holidays, missing only one when he and his mum visited the South Island. 

The team at YMCA say that Daniel and his mum have become a part of the furniture.  Lisa cannot express enough gratitude to the team for what they’ve been able to achieve with her son.  She goes on to say that “in all my years of practice, I’ve never been able to do what they’ve been able to do with Daniel - with any of my patients”.

Some of the most basic things we are able to do had either been too difficult or frustrating for Daniel, such as brushing his own teeth, wiping his face with a wet cloth or wearing a hat. Lisa pauses and with a deep and sincere tone in her voice, she says that “the unconditional love, safe environment and the genuine way in which they valued my son, is the reason why Daniel has learned how to do these simple things and also understands why they’re useful.”

As a solo mother, Lisa knew that having positive male role models in Daniel’s life was important. Daniel would arrive home after spending a week at camp, having learned something new and sharing about the new friends he’d made. She quickly grew to love the leaders at Shakespear.  Daniel, had swiftly become a camp favourite amongst his peers and leaders, picking up the award for ‘Most Valued Camper’ in 2012.

Lisa recalls one holiday where Camp Shakespear had closed temporarily.  When Daniel and his friends found out they were to spend their holidays at another site, they were reluctant to go.  Lisa has put this down to the leadership from Centre Manager, Mike Cash, who she says “although he leads a team of young camp instructors, there is a maturity in them that comes from his dedication and values based driven leadership.”

As we interviewed Daniel, mum Lisa and Mike Cash are seated on one of the camps outdoor tables.  A mug in one hand, large smiles on their faces and conversations flowing to and fro.  This picture highlights the relationship that has flourished between Lisa and the camp leaders.  Daniel looks on as most teenage boys his age do, in slight embarrassment but is quick to remember the work of his mum when asked “What are you thankful to your mum for?”  Jokingly he says “you know I never want to do anything she puts me in… I still don’t”… he laughs and looks back at his mum who continues to laugh and banter with Mike, “but I see that it works and that is why I am thankful for mum.”

Daniel is now thriving at Westlake Boys but is soon to move south with his mum on a new adventure.  This year he joined the school’s hockey team and also went along to the last camp programme, this time as a camp leader.  He’s been enjoying the perks of a camp leader, his mum says “when he returned home he boasted about the endless supply of milo and how the toilets for camp leaders were so much nicer”.  Lisa laughs as she re-tells his experience because “he doesn’t even drink milo, let alone enjoy it when we have it at home but the fact that he was a camp leader changed all of that for him.”

Daniel has learned to be comfortable in his own skin, developed a new confidence that the team at Shakespear have been instrumental in supporting.  Mike and the rest of the team are sad to say goodbye to this family as they start a new chapter in their lives together but for the most of it, are very privileged to have known and been allowed to impart strong values, leadership and communication skills into Daniel’s young life.  Daniel has gone from the shy kid with low confidence and limited communication skills to a fun, outgoing and give-it-a-go teenage boy.  His mum is more than proud and in his own words, Daniel encourages others who have shared a similar journey to “just try it out, whatever it is your afraid to do, give it a go, the more you do it, the more enjoyable it will become.”