7 May 2024

Mark Pearson to take Asperger’s in his stride as he treks gruelling Kokoda Track to inspire others

| Kellie O'Brien
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Kokoda Trail Mark Pearson

Mark Pearson (front), with His Boy Elroy’s Lachlan Stevens (centre) and Joshua Pereira, is looking forward to his first Kokoda Track experience. Photo: Kellie O’Brien.

For Mark Pearson, having Asperger’s syndrome has become one of his greatest strengths, and will be what helps him as he embarks on a journey that embodies the spirit of overcoming obstacles.

On his 43rd birthday on 13 May, Mark will set out on a 96-km trek through the rugged terrain of the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, in support of the mental health charity, Raising the Bar Foundation.

He will walk alongside 24 others from Raising the Bar Foundation and 10 veterans, as part of the charity’s partnership with RSL NSW.

“For me, having Asperger’s or having a disability does not really limit who you are,” he said.

“Even if you’re born with a disability, there will be obstacles you’ll have to try to get through in life, but if you challenge yourself through these obstacles, you find that the disability you thought was holding you back becomes less of a disability.

“There is another saying – turn your greatest weakness into your greatest strength.

“Which is my social skills – being able to communicate and being able to think about what to say as well; it can still be challenging.”

As Mark sits in His Boy Elroy in Wollongong, he admits to having spent time practising for our interview, now effortlessly finding answers to the questions posed to him.

His communication skills were honed after spending seven years at The Flagstaff Group in fine foods, an organisation whose vision is a world that only sees abilities.

Over time, Mark’s confidence grew, leading him to hand in his resume at His Boy Elroy after attending events hosted by Raising the Bar Foundation, a charity supported by the establishment.

His less formal resume included fun facts about himself to better reflect who he was and to help him stand out.

“When I was still working at fine foods in Flagstaff, I thought to myself, I might just try to change my resume in a way that would reflect who I was in regards to including things that you wouldn’t really expect in a resume,” he said.

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“For example, me helping a teammate in an online game like Overwatch.”

While Mark is incredibly good at his job, he particularly enjoys the socialisation and building relationships with coworkers.

“I share my experience of what it’s like to handle yourself when it comes to challenges in life; I also learn from others’ experiences,” he said.

He chose to do Kokoda to build on those friendships and challenge himself further.

He’s been preparing physically through personal training every Monday at Flagstaff, doing parkrun every Saturday and hiking at Mount Keira and Mount Kembla with other members of Raising The Bar men’s group The Barstool Brothers.

“Probably the longest hike I’ve ever done was the one at Stanwell Park, which was about a 19-km hike,” he said.

“My last hike my legs were very sore at the end, because of how far I actually travelled.

“It’s good training, because with the 19 km that gives me confidence knowing I should be able to do Kokoda without an issue.”

He has also dedicated time to his mental health, surrounding himself with good people in the lead up and building on the mental strength he’s acquired from life’s challenges.

“For me having Asperger’s, it is a bit of a challenge mentally but because I’ve been getting together with friends, talking with people and learning how to communicate properly, it’s become more natural to me as well,” he said.

“I’ve been catching up with friends and talking about how I’ve been feeling because I find that in life it’s just important to get together with friends when it comes to the mental health side of things.”

It’s everything that The Barstool Brothers is about.

Kokoda is just one in a series of challenges Mark has set himself in life, including having completed a Bachelor of Science (Medicinal Chemistry) at the University of Wollongong and working towards a Masters of Pharmacy at The University of Newcastle, but receiving a Diploma in Pharmaceutical Science after finding the course challenging.

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His Boy Elroy owner Lachlan Stevens said it was that resilience and ability to push on that inspired everyone around him.

“That’s what inspires me about Mark and his continual willingness to chuck himself into situations which are quite uncomfortable and are made sometimes more challenging because of Asperger’s syndrome,” Lachlan said.

“He’s come on at His Boy Elroy and he’s inspired everyone at our work because of his attitude towards work itself, facing challenges, and also engaging with the customers.”

His Boy Elroy venue manager Joshua Pereira agreed.

“When Mark came on board, it was immediately inspiring to see someone with different challenges adapt so seamlessly into the team,” Joshua said.

“He makes us all better every day, even if it’s calling us out sometimes, but we need that.

“His ability to take on challenges without any hesitation is really impressive and he’s going to smash this walk.”

Mark’s inspiration for doing the trek stemmed from hearing the accounts of fellow trekkers and learning about the events of the 1942 World War II battle along the trail.

“It’s to find out more about what happened during those times when the Australians were sent there to help to prevent the invading Japanese from taking control over Port Moresby,” he said.

“I just hope I can inspire a lot of other people who have Asperger’s out there not to give up on themselves and just to keep going at least.

“If I can overcome a disability, then I’m sure other people can overcome a disability as well.”

Mark said he hoped the 10 veterans joining the trek, who forged values of mateship, sacrifice, courage and endurance, would be proud of what he was doing.

“Because of all the challenges they’ve gone through, they’ll be able to reflect on them when it comes to talking to someone like me at least.”

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