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Hard work overcomes adversity

John Campbell works under the wing of plumber Richard McCullough. PHOTO/TOM TAYLOR

John Campbell’s clients love him so much they bake him scones while he works – to the consternation of his boss, plumber Richard McCullough.

“The customers are really nice to us, really nice people,” Campbell says.

Though he now spends his days joking around with McCullough – interspersed with the occasional unclogging of a sewer – Campbell’s introduction to the workforce was anything but easy.

John Campbell in hospital. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Campbell battled through school at Makoura College with ADHD and learning difficulties.

His passion was stripping and fixing vehicles, and the skills came easily to him, so after leaving school, he began working at a car parts outlet.

However, his colleagues bullied him for taking a little longer to learn certain things.

Campbell eventually left the job to lend a hand on the family farm in East Taratahi.

But when he was 19, Campbell developed a severe sinus cold.

“He got a very viral bug, quite a deadly one,” Campbell’s mother Kelly Jones said.

Fluid leaked on to Campbell’s brain, causing pressure which damaged his brain tissues.

He was rushed to Wellington Hospital for surgery on July 10, 2016.

Shortly after this first surgery, the bug returned, and Campbell had to endure the procedure a second time.

“Then I had a blood clot and had to go in a Life Flight plane,” Campbell said.

“It was bad.”

He underwent a cranioplasty, and now lives with a metal plate in his skull.

Recovering from his operations, Campbell spent his 20th birthday in hospital.

“That wasn’t really fun for him,” Jones said.

After a long stint in hospital, Campbell started receiving a Work and Income benefit, but said he much preferred to work.

The opportunity to fulfil that desire presented itself after lockdown last year when Campbell moved out of his family home.

One of his flatmates worked as a plumber, and Campbell would sometimes hang around while he was working.

McCullough – who had started his own company Get Plumbing and Gas in 2019 – met Campbell and noticed his interest in plumbing.

McCullough asked if Campbell wanted to shadow him for a day, and the partnership was formed.

Now 24, Campbell has been working with McCullough for about four months.

In the meantime, Campbell has left his flat, returning to live in a unit on his family’s property.

He said that he would often walk all the way from East Taratahi into town – a journey of about 12 kilometres. “There goes John-boy,” neighbours would shout when they saw him pass.

“It’ll keep you fit,” Campbell said.

Campbell was always ready to go and greeted his boss with a hot coffee when McCullough picked him up for work each morning.

“I’ve seen a big change in John and his attitude towards things,” Jones said.

As a “typical boy”, Campbell would often say he was too busy for household chores.

However, when it came to plumbing, Campbell was a workhorse.

“Richard must have a magic spell over him or something.”

The pair had worked together for a while before approaching Work and Income to decide how to manage Campbell’s workload, ensuring he was not overstretched.

Work broker Tim Bird had helped them through the process and continued to provide support.

“Tim was brilliant in helping John and seeing how he’s doing,” Jones said, saying she greatly appreciated McCullough giving her son a chance.

However, McCullough stressed that he was not providing a charity, and that Campbell was a real asset to his company, especially in his interactions with clients.

In the Times-Age building for his interview, Campbell demonstrated his knack for remembering faces, pointing out one of his favourite customers in an old paper.

On working with Campbell, McCullough said, “It’s just a patience thing, having a bit more empathy towards someone with a disability to help them work through it – recognising it and owning it.”

McCullough hoped to get Campbell registered as a journeyman, before potentially looking into the option of an apprenticeship.

According to the Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Board website, the journeyman class was created for people who had not passed a theory exam but who had completed a trade qualification.

Registering as a journeyman would give Campbell a formal title and recognition for his work, while avoiding some of the paperwork he might find more challenging.

Although Campbell knew a lot about tools and was easily able to recognise them, he sometimes had difficulty learning their names.

He and McCullough had come up with alternative names: “silver screws, gold screws…”

Jones said her son still suffered from headaches associated with his brain injury.

“He’s got to be very careful – he can’t get any knocks, but otherwise he’s not too bad.”

McCullough said Campbell would always be supervised on a job, but Campbell was aware of the safety procedures that needed to be checked off at every site.

McCullough’s main problem was making sure that Campbell was not overexerting himself on the job.

“I’ll keep working all day, all night, until morning. We don’t stop working, we like it,” Campbell said.

McCullough clarified that the pair definitely did take breaks – even full days off to go fishing – but sometimes Campbell was reluctant to leave a job unfinished.

“I have to tell John to pack up – we’ll come back tomorrow.”

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