Nikilani Rojas was 8 years old, and she didn't know how to swim. She didn't have many friends, either.
Born with developmental delays eventually diagnosed as Asperger's syndrome, "Niki" found socializing difficult and was rarely invited to birthdays and play dates as she was growing up. All that began to change when she waded into the clear waters of the Maui Family YMCA Pool for the first time to begin swimming lessons with Special Olympics Maui.
Ten years later, Niki will be one of 10 athletes from Hawaii who travel to New Jersey in June for the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games, where she will help represent Maui and the state as she competes in the freestyle and breaststroke events.
Eighteen-year-old Nikilani Rojas is one of 10 Hawaii athletes chosen to participate in the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games, to be held in New Jersey this June.
ILIMA LOOMIS photo
"It's exciting," she said.
Mom Toni Rojas said that she and husband Charles Rojas, who live with Niki in Haliimaile, are "beaming with pride," but that the opportunity to compete on a national stage is just one more step in Niki's journey to overcome Asperger's.
The King Kekaulike High School senior has also blossomed through her involvement with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Maui, and is pursuing her dream of becoming a chef by working twice a week as a prep cook at Haliimaile General Store under renowned island chef Bev Gannon, through a state workforce readiness program.
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at email@example.com. Neighbors and "The State of Aloha," written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.
She has also been named honorary co-chairperson for Paddle Imua, Imua Family Services' annual fundraiser in May, alongside stand-up paddle board champion Andrea Moller.
"It feels like it's all coming together," Toni Rojas said. "Any challenges she's had, she's been able to overcome. It may take her a little longer, but she's conquered it."
According to the National Library of Medicine, Asperger's syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism. People with Asperger's are often very intelligent but can have difficulty navigating social situations or interacting with other people. The disorder can also cause delays in motor development and sensory issues.
Toni Rojas said that as soon as Niki was born, she could tell her baby was different. "I knew something wasn't right," she recalled. "It was mommy intuition."
After seeing many specialists, Niki was diagnosed with Asperger's when she was 4. A geneticist told the family that Niki would eventually grow into a fully capable adult, but that each life skill may take her five to 15 years longer than her peers to accomplish and ultimately be independent.
Growing up without many friends was hard, but things started getting better when Niki was matched with Molly, a social therapy dog she received through Assistance Dogs of Hawaii. Whenever Niki felt herself starting to get upset, Molly always knew how to calm her down. "She'd start licking me," she recalled.
Getting involved with Special Olympics was another step forward. The year-round program helped Niki get healthy and stay active with sports such as swimming, bowling and bocce. Just as important, "It also gives her a place where she can feel comfortable being with her peers, and opportunities to socialize," Toni Rojas said.
Spending time at the Boys & Girls Club also helped Niki become more independent and spend time with other kids. "I have a lot of friends here," she said in a recent interview at the Makawao clubhouse. As kids gathered around to see what was going on, Niki took a break to show them some of her Special Olympics medals and tell them about being selected for the 2014 USA Games.
"Pretty cool, right?" she said, raising her hand to receive a high-five.
"We've all had the pleasure of watching her grow and flourish," said Cathy Rudow, program director for the Makawao club. Twice recognized as the club's "Youth of the Month," Niki is an enthusiastic member, volunteering with the "Super Crew," which helps clean and tidy the clubhouse at the end of each day, and participating in a cooking program, where she helps prepare a weekly meal for club members and their families - favorites include barbecued chicken, baked beans and fried rice. "I help with pretty much whatever they need," she said.
Cooking has been one of Niki's passions since she was 4, Toni Rojas said. She's especially known for her brownies and loves making birthday cakes for family and friends. "She cooks dessert for the family every Sunday night," Toni Rojas said. "It's a tradition."
After graduating from high school this spring, Niki hopes to turn her passion into a career by attending the Maui Culinary Academy.
Toni Rojas said that her daughter will likely continue to have sensory issues and other challenges for her entire life, but is making strides in her pursuit of independence and is on track to live a fulfilling life as an adult.
Toni Rojas smiled. "I think all parents are proud of their children and their accomplishments," she said. "I do think Niki's had to work that much harder, and we're so proud of the extra effort she's made."
One measure of her success has been her participation in the Boys & Girls Club annual trip to Hana - a two-day excursion. The first several times she was invited, Niki wasn't ready. But finally, she agreed to give it a try, and she's done the trip for the past two years. "I didn't even call my mom," she said.
Asked if spending the night away from home was a challenge, Niki shook her head.
"Nah," she said, waving the question away. "Well - maybe. Maybe the first time."