Since March, Niall Guite has used up a box of 150 felt-tip pens. Twice. He's also burned through a 36-pack of colored pencils -- twice -- and purchased enough poster board to wallpaper his bedroom. Niall and his mother, Michelle Guite, have learned that it's best to buy in bulk.
When the world shut down and sporting events were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, nonprofit organizations, including Special Olympics -- a global sports organization for athletes with intellectual disabilities -- started looking for innovative ways to raise money. In the U.K., organizers of the London Marathon, which was postponed in April and is one of the world's largest single-day fundraising events, started the 2.6 Challenge to raise money for British charities. That's when Niall, a Special Olympics gold medalist himself, had an idea.
The devout Sheffield Wednesday fan would draw 26 renderings of U.K. football stadiums -- he has visited 67 of them, after all -- from his now-signature aerial perspective. He would then sell them through the JustGiving site in hopes of raising £260, allowing people to choose the donation amount -- as long as it was a variation of 2.6, a play on the 2.6 Challenge. Twenty-six pounds, £126 and so on. The money would go to Special Olympics Great Britain, where he competes and sits on its Athlete Leadership Team, a committee that helps shape how the organization serves its athletes. He reached his goal within one month -- and the orders continued to come in. So too did the accolades.
Manchester City midfielder Rodri gave a nod to Niall's rendition of Etihad Stadium in a video, and the team invited him to a match, sent him a signed jersey and plans to hang Niall's drawing in the club's boardroom. Bath City, a semipro football club in England's sixth tier, joked on Twitter that they had never seen their stadium so full. Renowned British artist Grayson Perry tweeted that he loved Niall's drawings. The local television station came out to interview him. His family muses that Niall has gotten more renown than his father, Mitch, who majored in art. Humor is a common theme in the Guite household. Five months later, the 26-year-old has completed more than 100 stadium drawings and has raised £4,298 and counting. "So many things he does astound me," says Michelle on a Zoom call with Niall from their home in Sheffield, England, "and I just giggle [with pride]."
The Guite humor also makes an appearance in his drawings. After researching an aerial shot of the football grounds via Google and referencing the book "Football Grounds from the Air" for accuracy, Niall adds what he calls "jokes." Example? When depicting Tottenham Hotspur Stadium -- which he's been commissioned to do three times -- and a North London derby clash against rivals Arsenal, Niall made the section for the visiting fans very small. "People who have realized the joke will say, 'Thanks for that! I laughed a lot,'" says Michelle, a psychiatric nurse.
Niall was given every opportunity to appreciate art. He and his art-loving family, including his older brothers, Keiran and Declan, often visited galleries and walked through the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park. But it was a pop-up book about architecture, with tall buildings and intricate cathedrals, Niall received as a 5-year-old that sparked his curiosity in drawing. "I liked the buildings," says Niall, "and the shapes and sizes. They were interesting to look at." Michelle remembers one of his first drawings of a street map, complete with buildings, roads and green space. The map took over the attic floor and he moved toy cars all around it. And like his stadium drawings, his first creations were always from an aerial view to give it a "different perspective," Niall says.
During this time, Niall was also figuring out how to navigate intellectual and learning disabilities: autism, dyslexia -- which affected his ability to read -- and dyspraxia, which meant it took him longer to learn new skills. "Niall has auditory processing issues. He has to take time to understand what people are saying to him before he can formulate an answer," says Michelle, "and this leads to difficulty communicating with people. It can be very frustrating and life-limiting for him. He is, in fact, a very funny and astute young man whose difficulties have allowed him to develop great compassion and tolerance for others."
This also meant Niall had trouble making friends at school. He sought out independent activities like playing with his cars in the attic, drawing and playing with Legos "all of the time," he says. Sarah Williams, Niall's physical education teacher throughout primary and secondary school, remembers Niall as a shy boy who had a hard time articulating and who had to work extra on developing motor skills and coordination. "He always had a big smile," says Williams, now a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. "But don't be misled by the smile; he's incredibly driven and motivated. If he's going to draw one stadium, he'll draw every stadium in the U.K. He's realizing what a gift he has."
Whereas Niall played by himself at school, he relaxed around other children with similar disabilities on the basketball court or at football practice. His confidence grew as he developed new skills -- eventually helping his basketball team win gold at the Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015 -- and saw that he could accomplish whatever he put his mind to. And perhaps most important, he started making friends. Jazz Owen saw this progression and growth firsthand. She has coached Niall since he started playing basketball as a 12-year-old. "He sees the struggles he's had and the people he's relied on, and he mirrors that support to other [people with disabilities]," says Owen, a tutor for people with learning disabilities. "I can now put him with any player across the country and he'll replicate the support he's had."
Niall, Owen says, was the reason the team won gold at the World Games. Many of the starting players were close to fouling out and she needed someone to get under the basket and take the foul. "I told him, 'Make yourself big,'" Owen says. "He put his body on the line, going up against big men. He did everything I asked him, and because of what he did, he became the star of the team."
That night in Los Angeles, Owen heard music coming from Niall's dormitory in the student accommodations. It was well past 11 p.m., late enough to get into trouble. The song "Fly," by Avril Lavigne, played loudly: We were all meant to fly. Spread your wings across the universe. It's your time to. It's your time to shine.
"He and three of his teammates were running around the room, flying around like airplanes," says Owen, who couldn't bear to stop them. "They were so proud and so happy to win gold. I had a whole conversation with Niall. 'We're not doing anything wrong,' he had said. The conversation was flawless; he didn't struggle for words. He was confident, cheeky. There was pure pride and happiness on his face."
Back in Sheffield, Michelle says Niall was motivated by Special Olympics' message of inclusion and the political message of fighting discrimination he saw at the World Games. This sparked another interest for Niall: public speaking. With the help of a mentor and lots of practice, the boy who appeared to have nothing to say was now talking in front of schools and colleges. It was his way of raising awareness of people with disabilities and the opportunities Special Olympics and sports had provided for him. To date, he's done about 10 events.
But perhaps the biggest way he raises awareness? Lots of social media, Niall says. Twitter, specifically. There he reveals himself as artist, advocate and entrepreneur. Niall plans to fundraise for Special Olympics Great Britain until the end of the year, and then he's thinking about what he might do on his own. He recently bought an iPad and is using Apple Pencil, a wireless stylus pen, to draw digital images. This will allow for easy reproduction and the ability to meet the requests for T-shirts with his drawings on the front. He'd like to make a career of it if possible, he says.
Niall is a testament to what's possible. And now his modest idea of drawing 26 football stadiums and raising £260 is forging a path to his future -- and creating a pathway of what's possible for others with, and without, intellectual disabilities.
Turning to speak to Niall on the Zoom call, Michelle says, "Young families with children with disabilities can look at you as a person and say, 'That's amazing. If he can do that, what can my young person do?'"
To see more of Niall's work and follow his story, find him on Twitter @niallguitesogb4.