The 25-year-old assistant soccer coach who took 12 schoolboys into the flooded Tham Luang cave in Thailand has been criticized by some for his actions, but the parents of the boys are calling him a hero for keeping their boys alive.

Ekapol Chantawong, or coach “Ake” as he is known to his players, took members of the Wild Boars soccer team into the cave more than two weeks ago. Eight of the 12 boys trapped have been rescued from the cave, but five others, including Chantawong, are still inside.

Chantawong’s aunt, Thamma Chantawong, told CNN that the dozen boys would follow him anywhere. She described him as “diligent” and always willing to go out of his way to help others.

“He loves those kids very much,” she said. “The kids prefer to go out with him, whenever he invited them to go.”

Thamma said that this is not her nephew’s first near-death experience. When he was 10 years old, Chantawong survived a disease that killed his parents and brother.

He turned to Buddhism and trained to become a novice monk to help cope with the trauma of the loss. Thamma believes that he may have used the meditation practices he learned from his religious training to help keep the boys alive during their ordeal.

“Children’s mothers trust him,” Thamma said, adding that he even gave the soccer players his food while they waited to be rescued. “He is a very good person. He loves kids, takes care of kids.”

Law enforcement officials in Thailand have not ruled out criminal charges for Chantawong for taking the boys inside the cave just before it flooded.

In a letter to the families of the trapped boys, Chantawong apologized and promised to “care for the kids as best as possible.”

He will likely be the last to leave the cave -- a move that comes as no surprise to those who know him best.

With a report from CTV Atlantic’s Todd Battis