Te Huia was just 5 when I welcomed him into my family. He’s now 25 and it’s been an amazing, loving 20 years we’ve spent together. I have a big family – 3 children of my own, 9 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren. My grandchildren grew up with Te Huia. We’re all incredibly supportive of him and love him like our own.
A difficult childhood
Te Huia was born with autism, intellectual disability, and epilepsy. When he first moved in with us, he barely talked. He had very little structure in his early years. My grandchildren were part of an athletics club at the time, and I got him to join them when he was about 9. Through the club, we learnt about Special Olympics in New Zealand.
While he’s earned the nickname “Rocket Man” for his success in running, Te Huia’s race through his early life has not been easy. He was in a special needs unit in school, but struggled to fit in. Teachers there seemed to expect him to behave like a mainstream student. They didn’t understand that if they put too much pressure on him, he would not cope. They would teach him numbers one day, but he would forget what was taught a few days later and they would get upset with him. The pressure would often overwhelm him and cause him to have meltdowns.
He’s had a few meltdowns in public, and some people have passed horribly callous comments like “he should have been put down at birth” or that “he needs to be on drugs”. People can be so cruel. Usually, I just tell them to back off and leave him alone.
One time, we were at a swimming event at his High School, and one of the mainstream students who had been put into the wrong event turned around and yelled, “How dare they put me in with the retards!” I was so upset, but I held myself back from telling the boy off publicly. I knew that his attitude had likely been shaped by his parents or the people around him, and it wasn’t his fault. I was disappointed too that the teachers didn’t correct him then.
Finding his passion through sport
Te Huia has been with Special Olympics for 14 years now, and loves being part of the team. It provides him an inclusive environment where he’s accepted and respected for his talents. He’s great at long distance running. His best events are the 3,000m and 1,500m. He’s accumulated a room full of medals over the years – every single one a testament of what he’s capable of. How many of us have bragging rights to 6 marathons, 40 half marathons, and several triathlons?
Some people ask me why Te Huia isn’t employed, and I ask them right back, “Are you going to give him a job?” The answer, sadly, is usually no. He’s had several attempts to find work, but somehow, things have not worked out. He was working in a rest home helping with general cleaning, but because he was not provided with proper supervision, some residents got upset with him and he had to leave. Another time, he was employed doing simple baking, but unfortunately, the shop closed, and the staff had to be let go. These days, he keeps busy with chores and odd jobs for friends, as well as tasks on my daughter’s farm.
Seeing beyond disability
I wish the world can see what I see – that Te Huia is an amazing young man. He’s got such a good heart. He is polite and never vicious or nasty to other people. Even when he gets overwhelmed, he doesn’t hurt others, but he will beat himself up. When he was younger, he would really beat himself terribly, but as he grew older, we’ve channeled this energy to his running. It’s been so rewarding to see what he’s accomplished through sports.
Running has empowered him to find his strength, his confidence and his voice. Apart from Special Olympics, Te Huia also trains with another running group for persons with disabilities, Achilles. We met trainers who got him started on triathlons. He’s been so disciplined and focused on his training that he completed a half Ironman last Christmas, and the experience was awesome. He’s made so many friends through sports, and has earned quite a reputation for himself in the community for being unstoppable!
Our days together are busy and fulfilling. We’re never just sitting idle. We’re usually out for a run, a bike ride, swimming, at the gym, sports training, grocery shopping, or visiting family and friends. If we’re home, we have a personal trainer that comes train with Te Huia, or we’ll be catching up on chores. The lockdown during Covid-19 was challenging. We channeled his energy into jigsaw puzzles, chores like mowing the lawn, and cooking. Te Huia is a great cook. His favourite dishes are healthy stewed vegetables and meat.
Looking towards the future
We are looking forward to the Special Olympics New Zealand national games later this year where Te Huia will get to compete again. In fact, his biggest dream is to be able to represent his country one day and inspire the world with what he can do.
My message to all parents of children or adults with special needs is to get them into sport. It is such a healthy way to build their confidence and social skills and include them as part of the larger community.
I hope to one day see a kinder society where no one is judged. Don’t look at someone’s disability, look inside, and see what people are really like. When people get to know Te Huia, they realize he’s such a dream. They say I’ve done a good job as a foster parent, but I tell them it’s because I had a superb base to work with. We didn’t do much, we simply brought out all the good that was already in him.
To borrow the words of Condoleezza Rice, “Every life is worthy, and every life is capable of greatness. We have an obligation to make sure that opportunity for greatness is there.”