When Tauranga's Elizabeth Street Community Centre isn't booked up with zumba, yoga or dance classes, a very different kind of activity takes over.
It's a Dungeons and Dragons social group for neurodiverse teens with conditions such as autism and ADHD, to help build confidence and social skills.
The group is run by Jason Edgecombe, diagnosed with ADD as a child, and now a mentor for teens.
"A few years ago I was doing one-on-one mentoring with youth in Tauranga and I approached a local support organisation and asked them if they have anybody who would need help," said Edgecombe.
"They said they needed a social group to do some kind of activity for our kids that can bring them together out of the house. I said 'I have just the thing - Dungeons and Dragons' which is an incredibly social game even though it's kind of for nerds."
Dungeons and Dragons is a wildly popular table-top role-playing game that's been around since the 1970s.
"If you think of Lord of the Rings but with more dragons, that's the setting of it, and then it uses pencil, paper and dice as well as very thick rule books to manage the physics and whatever happens in the world," said Edgecombe.
It's the opposite of sitting in front of a TV playing a video game by yourself - and that's the point.
"By bringing them into the room and engaging them with this fun, social activity, the social skills aspect happens organically," he said. "Which is much better, in my opinion, than sitting in a room with somebody teaching you how to make eye contact."
Edgecombe says it's the perfect team activity to help bring neurodiverse teens out of their shells.
"It's to help people better find who they are, and by giving them a very safe, non-judgmental environment - two very key aspects - where they can explore different actions and activities and do ridiculous things like trying to shoot a fireball at a dragon.
"They can make mistakes and learn without having serious negative consequences that can trigger their anxiety."
Not surprisingly, the players are "addicted" to their Monday-night session.
"As a person with no social skills it helps me gain relationships," said 17-year-old Mykal Mayne.
Hannah Payton, Mykal's support person, confirmed his enthusiasm.
"He texts me on Sundays saying 'we've got Dungeons and Dragons on Monday'."
For 16-year-old Cesar Vargas-Tuerlings, it's liberating.
"I often struggle with people skills, like making friends, keeping friends, that sort of thing. To be able to take control of another character who doesn't have all those problems."
And 13-year-old Conner Augustine likes the fact it's different from a regular card game.
"It's more of an imaginary game than a card game and I like that because imagination can take you into a different world."
Finn Whitman, 14 years old, likes meeting new people through the game.
"I meet a lot of new people … it helps with my social skills I think."
Finn's mother, Sharon Whiteman, has noticed a difference.
"He's a lot more confident around other kids," she said. "He's autistic and he's dealt with a bit of bullying in the past, and here's a safe space where other kids get him."
For this fellowship, Elizabeth Street Community Centre is a portal to another realm without real-world limits that offers a safe space to learn and grow.
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