Big hearted travel boss opens new store and makes fundraising pledge

The manager of a new travel store in Shrewsbury who has made a difference to the life of a 12-year-old boy with autism has launched a fundraising drive in support of the youngster’s school.

Daniel O'Leary chats to Hays Travel’s Sarah Franklin, Suzie Aston and Steve Payne at the official opening of the new store
Daniel O’Leary chats to Hays Travel’s Sarah Franklin, Suzie Aston and Steve Payne at the official opening of the new store

Steve Payne, who runs the new Hays Travel store in Shrewsbury, has nominated the Friends of Severndale Academy as the shop’s charity partner for the next year after striking up a special friendship with the family of Daniel O’Leary.

The fundraising drive was launched by Daniel and his parents, Nick and Lorna, as well as Shrewsbury Mayor Phil Gillam, during the store’s official opening.

The store on Pride Hill, next door to H Samuel and Boots Opticians, has created six new jobs and includes a Bureau de Change. It is part of Hays Travel North West and has been opened following a £70,000 refurbishment.

Steve, 53, who has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years, met Daniel when his parents booked the family’s first holiday abroad to Euro Disney in Paris while he was working at the former Thomas Cook store in the town last year.

Daniel, who was diagnosed with autism as a three-year-old, was involved in every aspect of the booking process from choosing the hotel to planning the park visits and developed such a strong friendship with Steve, he enjoys nothing better than popping in to say hello during his regular Saturday trips into town.

Familiarity and routine are essential to Daniel’s emotional wellbeing and ability to cope with his condition and Steve is delighted to play a small part in that reassurance.

Steve, who lives in Shrewsbury, said: “I’m delighted to support Daniel and his family as well as the wider school.

“If you haven’t had any direct experience with a charity, it’s difficult to know who or what to support. We thought of Severndale straight away, thanks to that relationship with Daniel and his family.

“Any amount of money we can raise is amazing for them. It’s lovely to be involved in local fundraising and supporting the local community, especially as we open the new Hays Travel store which is really exciting.

“Daniel enjoys his routine on a Saturday, coming into town and going into shops. It’s really lovely to be part of that routine. It’s lovely for me to have struck up such a friendship with him and his family.”

Severndale Academy in Shrewsbury provides specialist education for up to 400 young people aged from two-and-a-half to 19 with a range of disabilities including moderate, severe, complex and profound learning difficulties, young people with autism, complex medical conditions and physical and mobility difficulties as well as behavioural difficulties arising from different conditions.

Daniel was diagnosed with autism after being referred to the Child Development Centre for a 6-week assessment.

His parents, Nick and pupil support assistant Lorna, who live in Shrewsbury, visited their GP after becoming concerned Daniel was not meeting some of his developmental milestones.

“There was some delay in his speech and we also noticed certain aspects of his behaviour. He would be fixated on an object, for example. He would have a car or train and would be playing with it and looking at the wheels all the time,” explained Nick, 51, who works as a trainer and assessor with engineering apprentices.

“There was no real imaginative play and he wasn’t speaking. We took him to a pre-school with other two-year-olds and they were speaking.

“We were lucky he was referred so young so they had everything in place for him. It’s all about early intervention with autism.”

When Daniel was initially diagnosed, his parents were warned he probably would remain non-verbal. However he is now able to have full conversations and is growing in confidence socially, which is why it is so important for his mum and dad to involve him in social activities like booking a holiday.

“We went into the travel agents and my wife decided to let Daniel choose the hotel and it’s all gone from there. We built a relationship up,” said Nick.

“He has the confidence now to go into the shop to speak to Steve. Now, every time we go into town, he wants to go in and see Steve. They are great and the whole team is very good.

“The thing about it all is choice. Daniel could choose his hotel and communicate his choice to Steve. It’s a bit of independence for him and keeps him social. Steve’s his new best friend. I don’t know how many other children with autism they get in there but he is absolutely professional. 

“Sometimes, it can be difficult as people don’t know how to deal with autism and some get embarrassed. We take Daniel to a lot of places and some people cannot cope with it. They don’t understand his condition. Steve was so relaxed. To him he was just another customer who needed his advice and help.”

Nick is now treasurer and vice chair of the Friends of Severndale Academy and is one of around 12 parents and family members who fundraise for the school every year, as well as an army of helpers.

“We have charity status and we raise funds for the school. Last year, we raised in excess of £20,000 for a specially adapted mini bus. We have just raised £13,000 for a wheelchair swing,” said Nick.

“We do your good old fashioned summer and Christmas fairs and we get a lot of donations from various companies and individuals, but our main fundraising is through our charity golf day at Shrewsbury Golf Club which raises £10,000-£11,000.

“Daniel is an only child. This is our normal. Everything has to be planned. The school has been a big help. The staff are amazing but it is hard work. They are very understanding and patient. They deserve help which is why I joined the Friends of Severndale community to put something back into the school.”

Shrewsbury Mayor Phil Gillam congratulated the new Hays Travel team for supporting the school and helping the local community.

“I’m delighted to be invited here to help launch the new store and this fantastic fundraising initiative,” he said.

“It is wonderful to hear how welcoming and reassuring the team are around Daniel and how much this fundraising will benefit the children at his school. I wish everybody the best of success for this amazing cause and the best of success with the new store which is very smart and inviting inside.

“I have had a very warm welcome from the team here.”

In addition to equipment, the Friends of Severndale Academy also raise funds for the leavers’ ball and other activities like trips to the Christmas pantomime and ice skating.

“The charity also enables parents and new parents to become part of the community and understand they are not alone which is a big part of our work.”

Steve, Hays Travel Manager, added: “Fundraising is a big part of Hays Travel’s ethos. We will raise as much as we possibly can and have a charity walk and a raffle planned, among other things.”

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