Boy’s fantasy flight to school camp takes off

Alun White-Rhodes cannot walk now, but he has always yearned to fly. On Wednesday the 12-year-old, whose mobility and speech have progressively been stolen by a rare form of epilepsy, lived his dream and flew to his Motueka school’s camp in a helicopter. The day of his flight was also his birthday.

All the pupils of Parklands School sang Happy Birthday as his mother, Niccola Satherley, carried Alun across the school’s back field to the waiting helicopter. The crowd cheered and smiled. The 15-minute flight from Motueka to Totaranui, in Abel Tasman National Park, was gifted by Nelson-based Helicopters NZ (HNZ). It was the result of a letter by Satherley and the school’s principal Jacques Munro to the helicopter company explaining Alun’s fragile condition and his love of helicopters. Alun has been a pupil at Parklands since he was 5 – not long after experiencing his first epileptic seizure. Despite a cocktail of drugs and regimes his friends, family and teachers have had to helplessly watch him deteriorate. He is now wheelchair-bound. He cannot do any of the academic tasks he once could, or run, jump or play. He can only respond with one or two words – or his beautiful smile.

Satherley said the now continual seizures – between 50 to 200 a day – along with falls and knocks, have pushed Alun’s health to the limit. His brain is dying. Watching their son’s battle had been her personal hell, she said. The medication does not work. His seizures are becoming more regular and his body was not coping. “Alun is one of the strongest boys I know. Watching him disappear before my eyes is heart-breaking.”

The helicopter ride to the biennial camp for the school’s Year 7 and 8 classes was a high spot of happiness for mother and son. “When they said ‘yes’ last week it was exciting. It’ll be the first helicopter ride for both of us. “its exciting to be able to do something different with him on his birthday. Definitely the helicopter ride is a high, but so is getting away and enjoying some one-on-one time with Alun.”

Alun and his mum were joined for the journey by special needs teacher Annie Simmons. Kayaking, swimming and making (and hopefully eating) damper bread were on the agenda during their overnight stay, she said.

Deputy principal Jenny Milne said getting Alun to the week-long camp for one night had involved thinking outside the square. While his classmates and friends had travelled by water taxi, the bumpy ride was considered too touch on Alun’s fragile body. Kids yelled with excitement as Dave Sowman piloted the AS350B2 Squirrel helicopter into a landing on the school field – the chopper was blowing hats and dresses.

“I read Alun’s letter just before I came out. That’s why I’m not taking off my sunglasses,” Sowman told the encircling teachers and children.

Taken from the Southland Times 10 March 2017.