Cerebral palsy sufferer’s BFF wins ASB award for introducing a life of adventure to the pair.

Living her life in a wheelchair she might be, but not even this can stop 19-year-old thrill-seeker Alicia Kapa.

A cerebral palsy sufferer unable to walk, use her arms or do the kind of everyday tasks most take for granted, Kapa still manages to live life to the full, listing white water rafting and a bungee jump among her daring feats.

All this could not have been achieved without 23-year-old Leah Stewart, a young woman whose unfailing friendship and care has helped bring out the dare-devil in Kapa.
For six years Stewart has been constantly at Kapa's side not only taking her on the adventures, but doing them with her. Yet she is more than just a friend; she is also her carer who every day helps with tasks like dressing, going to the toilet – and turning over in bed.

In a friendship dating back to when both were students at Botany Downs Secondary College in Auckland, their story came to light after Stewart this week received the ASB Good as Gold award.

Advertisement

Their paths first crossed on a school camp for year nine students in 2012. As a prefect and student leader, Stewart (year 12 at the time) was asked by Kapa's mother Joanna to keep an eye out for Alicia.

"Alicia and I hung out a bit at the camp and started to get to know each other," she says. "I noticed many of the other students weren't interacting with her so when she messaged me after the camp to see if I would catch up with her again, I said yes."

Not long after this Stewart, worried her friend was being left isolated at school, made a video about her and her condition. After showing it at assembly, Kapa was finally welcomed into the school community.

Since then the pair have been inseparable: "Honestly I think it was meant to be," says Stewart. "Alicia stole my heart and I immediately thought of all the things we could do together; we know each other inside out and can tell what each other is thinking.

"It has brought a lot of fun into my life too. I can't change the world, but if I can help one person experience life like others do, then it is my little way of making a difference, of having an impact."

Gradually Stewart learnt how to care for Kapa - she gained a national certificate in health disability and age support - and is now employed through Healthvision (an organisation specialising in home-based healthcare) and spends around 30 hours a week looking after her friend.

Not that she considers it a job. The pair are both thrill-seekers and have, among other things, bungee jumped together in Taupo.

"We'd already been white water rafting and swing swooping in Rotorua and Alicia was keen to bungee. When we got to Taupo she was very excited but insisted I jump first," says Stewart. "I had to pretend I wasn't scared when all the time I was crapping myself.
"When it came to her turn I gave her a pep talk and said 'you'll love it'. We pushed her off and I thought 'my God, what have I done', but she came up smiling."

Last April the pair spent a month in the United States visiting New York, Orlando, Miami, Los Angeles and Hawaii (where they met up with Kapa's parents), Stewart singlehandedly taking care of the wheelchair, luggage and Kapa.

The high point of this was a five-day boat cruise from Miami to the Bahamas which featured performances by their favourite group, American rock band Paramore.
"We were in the front row," says Stewart. "The band was amazing, we high-fived them and everyone embraced Alicia, she felt very loved on that trip."

Leah Stewart
Leah Stewart

The pair have started a Facebook page and Youtube channel showing videos of their travels and adventures in part to challenge people's perceptions of what is possible for those living with disabilities. It is known as Wheely Wacky Adventures, Kapa being Wheely and Stewart, Wacky.

When not spending time with Kapa, Stewart works for Attitude Pictures as a freelance camerawoman. She has a communications degree in film and television, and has ambitions to become a documentary maker.

Kapa's mother Joanna says Stewart's influence on her daughter has been huge. "They are both dare-devils and she has given Alicia the confidence to go outside her comfort zone; it's also meant I've been able to step away a bit and be more of a mum than a carer."
The ASB Good as Gold award gives Stewart $5,000 to go on more adventures with Kapa (the pair are planning a South Island road trip and another bungee jump, this time in Queenstown) and $5,000 for herself.

ASB's GM of corporate communications Christian May says: "Quite simply, Leah is an inspiring woman who has helped ensure Alicia's condition doesn't limit her or her dreams. By documenting their adventures, they are showing others that anything is possible if you are courageous and determined."

# Amazingly this is not all there is to Stewart's story. Last year she donated a kidney to an anonymous recipient following a two-and-a-half hour operation. Originally she intended donating to a friend of her sister, but this was not possible as tests proved they were not a match.