Sam Bilich, Gisborne’s ‘smiling cherub’.
Samuel Bilich was hard to miss.
At 120 kilograms and a little over 160 centimetres, his smile was broad as his girth.
For the past 19 years or so Gisborne’s »gentle cherub » has been a kind of roaming feature of the city centre, spreading daily bonhomie in a stream of greetings and animated conversations.
That came to an end last Friday when the 37 year old died in Gisborne hospital, most likely of difficulties associated with his disability.
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Samuel had Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects growth and development.
His uncle, Jon Davies, who is also the local service manager for Idea Services, said the syndrome meant Samuel was « basically always in starvation mode ».
« He didn’t know what it meant to be full. For all of his life he was always looking for food. If he saw it, he’d want to eat it. It meant he’d go searching for food so had to be closely supervised, and food had to be locked away from him to protect his health » he said.
It also meant Sam needed regular exercise, which led to him and his carers making frequent walks.
If food was one of Sam’s vices, people were the other. He loved them.
« He was a very friendly guy, always had a smile on his face, always acknowledged and greeted people. He’d call out to people in town and when introduced to someone he’d quickly become their friend. He had that sort of personality, » Davies said.
And blessed with « the memory of an elephant » he’d usually great everyone by name.
His verbal skills were limited and you had to listen closely sometimes to understand what he was saying, but you always got the gist.
« He was an example of what we want in people with intellectual disabilities. He felt part of the community and felt very accepted, » he said.
« He looked like a chubby cherub. Kids loved him. When my 5-year-old grand-daughter saw him for the first time she ran up and gave him a big hug. He wasn’t scary.
« Having said that, his struggle with Prader-Willi meant he could get quite frustrated and upset with those trying to keep food from him ».
A variety of circumstances over the past six months, including the loss of several regular carers, meant he had become more upset than normal, and had actually physically pushed and scratched some staff.
« Sadly, that had seen us go down a process that would see him into a secure assessment centre. His life had turned a bit upside down over the past six months, but that didn’t stop him making a whole lot of new friends, » Davies said.
« He could be challenging, but even when he got upset he would calm down then look at me and say ‘do you still love me?’. I’d say ‘yes I do’, and we’d have a big hug. »
Sam spent the early part of his life in Auckland with family but needed specialist care from about the age of 10. After a few years in Hamilton, he came to Gisborne as a 14 year old when his care family moved there.
He attended Lytton High School and was a keen netballer with the Hourata club, and an avid waka ama proponent. A few years ago he competed in the waka ama nationals with a Hawke’s Bay team.
For the past 18 years he was in residential care, living in a flat near the city centre. His carer for the past 10 years was Barry Turnbull.
« He was a people’s person, Samuel was, » Turnbull said.
« He touched a lot of hearts. He was a big part of our family. Our three kids were very young when I started working with Sam. He was a lovable little man with a very nice nature.
« I’ll miss his smile and his cheekiness. He had a wonderful sense of humour. »
Sam’s funeral was held on Thursday.