Jetting hundreds of miles away from home and family to sleep rough in New York City might sound like a strange way to spend a week, but for Tom Nasmyth-Shaw, it was a chance to make a difference to families just like his own.
The trip was a charity venture which has its roots in Burry Port where Tom, who is 30, lives with his wife and son, Jack.
Almost five, Jack was diagnosed with autism in 2013, which spurred Tom on to try and make a difference.
“The idea for fundraising came because over the years my wife and I had spent thousands of pounds on therapies that aren’t provided by the NHS.
“After seeing a lot of progress for my son, I decided to start doing something really unique to raise as much money as I could so we could help to take the financial worry away from parents who were in the same boat as us.”
The extreme solution, for Tom, meant sleeping rough for a week, a project called Week on the Street that he undertook for the first time in London in December 2013 to raise money for both autism and homelessness.
“It was really cold. I wanted to make it a challenge, so I chose winter and over the course of the next few months we raised about £30,000 from that.
“Lots of people were talking about it on social media. When it kicked off, people were reading the blog and then it went everywhere.
“When I went out, I had nothing – I took a sleeping bag, no money whatsoever, warm clothing and I actually did take my phone because I needed a social media presence and wanted to blog about the experience. Support from social media came all over in London, and people came to support me and bring me food, it was bizarre.”
Named in the 2014 Pride of Britain awards, Tom’s success buoyed him even further, and he began to think of his next challenge.
He says it’s an easy step to take when you see the difference that funding can make.
“Sometimes I wondered if I could do it, but when I see all the changes the therapies make to families like ours, it’s worth it. There’s no one else to help these people.
“Jack was non verbal for a very long time. He’s still not talking fully now, but he’s starting to say a lot of words.
“He finds change very difficult, and gets very anxious going to new places. He’s got sensory issues where you can’t touch his hair.
“It is a struggle, but he’s not as severe as some other children, so we’re thankful for that, but it is quite difficult with Jack.”
It was with Jack in mind that Tom jumped on a plane to New York in October with nothing more than some warm clothes and a phone to keep his followers up to date with his progress.
“In London, I had the opportunity to have a look at sites where I might sleep. But I couldn’t do that with New York, so I jumped on a plane, got off at the other end, put a stab vest on and walked around until I found there was a doorway which to me felt safe.
“Thankfully I didn’t get too much bother. Now and again people would shout abuse at me or you’d get the odd shady character asking me for something, but I just slept in doorways which I felt I could. I was moved on a lot by security and different people, but I’d just go and choose another doorway then.”
Once the word got around, Tom found that he was lucky enough to receive support in New York, but it was a difficult week.
“The social media didn’t take off straight away in New York, so I went one day without any food, I was extremely hungry and extremely cold.
“I made a little sign to see if I could get some food, but nothing came from that. In the end, the word spread and people came from all over. I had people from Belarus, Wales, New York coming and bringing me food and drinks. It was nice to see, a surreal experience.”
As well as making efforts to fundraise for autism, Tom says coming face to face with homeless people made him realise how much help they need too.
“It’s totally changed my way of thinking about homeless people. A lot of the homeless people that I came across have clear mental health problems and issue with drugs and alcohol. I guess it’s quite common, but it really is a grim existence out there and it does make you thiink.
“I was only doing a week and I couldn’t wait to get him to my family and things, but these guys, whether they’ve chosen it or not, they’re out there in all weathers – the snow, the rain, and that’s their life. It made me really think about how much of an issue homelessness is.”
In total from the New York trip they’ve raised £10,000 so far, and Tom says that is enough to make a difference – but he’s not done yet.
“I think the Week on the Street project has one final event left in it. That would need to be something even more extreme, perhaps a little bit more cold.”
Jack’s diagnosis has changed a lot for Tom’s family, who are expecting a little girl in January, but he says he’s keen to take what he’s learned and make a difference to more people.
“I’m currently working as a delivery driver – I was working as a manager supporting people with disabilities, but after my son was diagnosed with autism I was finding it very difficult to do both, deal with adults with autism and then go home and provide home therapies for my son.
“My brother works for one of the homeless charities we’re donating to, and now that’s something I started to feel is a route that I might go into for my work. It’s a massive problem and it can’t be tackled overnight. It’s opened my eyes to helping and supporting people.”
If you would like to donate to Week on the Street visit the website weekonthestreet.co.uk