The following is a blog post by Inclusive Community Artist in Residence Lindsay Wong. For more information on Lindsay, click here.
“The CSO has allowed me to become the person I am today.”
Daniel Thomas and I have a shared joke about him being “the real artist-in-residence” at the CSO on Fraser Street, while I’m someone that was randomly hired. I have zero fine arts skills, but he’s the one who draws enthusiastically every day.
At twenty-three years old, he’s a dedicated Special Olympics athlete, skilled visual artist, and a service user at John Howard. He’s also one of my neighbours in the Fraser Street apartments run by JHSLM.
The weather is scorching, so we amble to The Pie Hole, hoping for a slice of apple pie a la mode and a frosty Americano, but the restaurant’s oven is broken, so we decide instead to walk to Starbucks on Kingsway for mid-afternoon coffee and pastries.
Despite always being affable, friendly, and articulate in our workshop interactions, he admits that he was nervous speaking with me. “For someone on the [autistic spectrum], new things always worry me,” he says.
At Starbucks, we sip our coffees and he tells me his JHS story. Three years ago, just by coincidence, an outreach worker suggested that he enroll in powerlifting. Since then, he has been actively working out and lifting for competitions. Power-lifting is one of his prime passions, and this summer, he traveled to Nova Scotia for his first ever national competition.
“Powerlifting is a stabilizing binary in my life,” he says, proudly. “It really builds confidence.”
Once a week, he works out at the gym. Daniel admits that before he began powerlifting, he “was a wreck,” yet now, he can lift up to 374 pounds in a squat and 407 pounds in a deadlift. He plans to pursue the sport as long as he can, as he can’t imagine his “life without it.”
He loves the fierce competition as well as the rousing team sport aspect, receiving regular support from his coaches and team-mates. He’s also the proud recipient of nine powerlifting medals.
Before he came to the JHS, Daniel lived with his parents on the West Side of Vancouver. He was diagnosed with autism at age eleven, and attended Lord Byng high school, where he was regularly bullied. He eventually won an award for “Most Improved Student,” and he avidly studied drawing, sculpture and photography, creative subjects that he found to be rewarding and invigorating. He became involved with what he calls “the nerd community,” discovered his immense passion for Transformers, and gradually learned social cues from pop culture and television shows. Yet after high school, he said that he “worked to fit into the ecosystem, but fell flat on [his] face.”
We chat about how school does not necessarily prepare students for the real-world nor help them find suitable jobs. From 2005-2009, I was an undergraduate student at UBC, and I lived in the same neighborhood where Daniel was growing up.
After graduating from high school, Daniel excitedly began his trades education, but after only a couple of years, just before his final exam, he endured a life-altering concussion. Since his former days as an apprentice mechanic, he’s also worked at a retail warehouse and as a dishwasher at a bustling downtown restaurant.
While Daniel was suffering from anxiety and substance use, Daniel’s CLBC community living coordinator referred him to JHS Services. He credits Kelly from the Grassroots program and his first worker, Krista, for referring him to the Special Olympics.
What Daniel loves about the CSO is its ““a safe communal aspect” where they are “lots of people from different walks of life.” He particularly likes having their coffee on cold weather days, and the staff’s neverending care and support, as The JHS have helped him work successfully towards his life goals.
At 10 or 11 AM, he usually wakes up for a breakfast of leftovers. Then he heads downstairs to the CSO for a cup of coffee, before going back upstairs to his room to check his schedule. In the evenings, he frequently enjoys a walk around the neighbourhood and playing video games with friends. In his spare time, Daniel uses an app (a program that he describes as “Super-Skype”) to run multiple servers, while enjoying the position of moderator and administrator for a model kit club. When he artfully sketches his Transformers and Gundams, his favourite mediums include pens, pencils, and pastels. He enjoys drawing a various cast of characters and experimenting with forms. In the past, he drew armoured vehicles and military subjects.
Currently, he’s enrolled in courses at Langara college, where he’s learning to illustrate graphic novels.
“Art helps get emotions out,” he explains. During his depressive and anxious episodes, he draws “lots of darker stuff, experimental stuff.”
He acknowledges that he ““owes a lot to his mom” who encouraged him “to be what I want to be, and supported him in some very rough times. The strength of my mom and grandma help me along with Special Olympics and the JHS.”
Daniel has been a client of the John Howard Society for four years now, and a Special Olympics athlete for three years. He discusses how “very comfortable” he is at the CSO.
“They’re there to always hear me and support me,” he says. “The Special Olympics and JHS have allowed me to become the person I am today.”
Interesting Facts about Daniel: He “likes quiet moments for reflection” and prefers video games over television. His pupils can dilate bigger than other people. He hates spiders and open spaces, especially on a street corner when it’s very windy, as he feels as if he will fall off the world. If he could have dinner with anyone in history, he’d have a bowl of pho with David Bowie. Daniel also enjoys ancient and medieval history.
Favourite Movies: Akira, manga movies, The Star Wars spinoff and Solo; old obscure animated and action movies such as Predator and Demolition Man.
Favourite Comic Books: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Japanese manga, Gundam Side Stories, Ajin.
Favourite Foods: Pho with beef flank steak at Pho 99, homemade Turkish food.
Languages: Conversational Turkish.
Artistic Inspirations: Studio Ghibli, Tom Clancy, Akira Kawasawa, Paul Verhoevenin in Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Hirohiko Araki.
Real-Life Inspirations: His Special Olympics coaches, Gerry and George, who are “really positive influences helping [him] grow and improve.” Both give him general life and styling advice.
Music: “Everything including rap and country, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd to Star Rogers.”
For a google doc of this blog post, complete with pictures, click here.