Northern Ireland's local heroes honoured at Belfast Telegraph's Making The Difference gala
We celebrate the stars of our community through a sparkling awards night packed with fun
It started off as a search for unsung heroes and they were found. After seven months and hundreds of entries 11 amazing winners were given the recognition and praise they deserve at a truly spectacular and emotional gala night in the Grand Opera House on March 9.
The aim behind the Making the Difference Awards in association with SPAR was to highlight the good news stories that so often go unreported and give a platform to the many examples of achievement, success, triumph against the odds and old-fashioned community spirit going on across Northern Ireland.
After a panel managed the tough job of shortlisting the hundreds of nominations, 44 finalists travelled to Belfast for the inaugural awards ceremony to experience an unforgettable and uplifting evening.
The selfless, brave and inspirational people who make a difference to the lives of others had the spotlight shone brightly on them.
As the theatre lights dimmed and the curtain rose, the talented Belfast Community Gospel Choir opened the evening with a rousing and energetic performance of Can You Feel It?.
After the applause faded television personality Julian Simmons, who was hosting the glittering evening, warmly welcomed hundreds of guests to the inaugural awards.
During the two-hour event each humbling and inspiring story for each category was brought to life with a powerful citation and photographs projected in the auditorium.
Each worthy winner sparked huge applause and delighted cheers from the packed theatre.
Among them was Frank Hutchinson, from Divis Tower community allotment, who punched the air and jumped to his feet after being crowned the winners of Best Garden.
Cheers also erupted when brave Coleraine man Peter McMullan was named Best Neighbour. He discovered his elderly neighbour collapsed in her home and managed to get in and raise the alarm—saving her life.
The evening also had many poignant moments.
Among them were the words of Hayley McKee, a former pupil at Belfast Hospital School. The 24-year-old, who had suffered from two strokes, walked on stage to receive the award along with the teachers for Best School category.
Hayley, who nominated the school, said the teachers had been her “guiding lights” while she was in hospital.
“The amount of work that is done is unbelievable — I've been with them for 10 years, and they help everyone, no matter what,” she said.
But alongside the inspirational stories there was laughter too.
Northern Ireland’s famous housewife May McFettridge entertained the audience with her famous, cutting comments.
And Coronation Street actor Charlie Lawson also made an appearance on the night to help introduce the award for Best Street which went to Tavanagh Street in south Belfast.
Getting toes tapping was the infectious energy of dance troop Razzle Dazzle from west Belfast.
But silence fell throughout the theatre as the 37-strong cast of Les Miserables at the New Theatre, Newtownabbey delivered a spectacular performance.
The audience was also left in awe as synchronised aerialists Barren Carrousel descended from the stage ceiling and performed alongside talented singers Hannah and Mary Frances.
The special moment of the evening was the presentation of the overall Making the Difference Award to an unsuspecting John Linehan for his tireless charity work.
As the citation was read out John aka May McFettridge, who was on stage, finally realised he was the winner. The auditorium rose to their feet, applauding the shocked and overwhelmed comedian.
“I can't believe it — I'm shaking here,” he said.
The evening was brought to a breathtaking close by West End star Peter Corry who performed alongside the young cast of Les Miserables.
Belfast Telegraph Editor Mike Gilson said the awards were a “huge success”.
“When we began to think of ways we could showcase the huge numbers of unsung heroes, we had no idea that it would lead to such a great night.
“It's been an amazing journey for us to see just how many there are out there. The awards will be back next year to honour even more unsung heroes,” he said.
Paddy Doody, from sponsors SPAR, said they have been “astounded” by the acts of selflessness and compassion shown by people and businesses.
“The stories we have read and that were heard are tales of true grit, highlighting the ‘Never Give Up’ attitude of people here,” he said. “Through hardship and tragedy, people have set aside their own priorities and rallied together to help and overcome the challenges faced — harnessing a real sense of community.”
Best Street: Where there is an amazing sense of community.
Best School: A school with an ‘outreach' project where pupils raise money for local causes or have gone ‘green'.
Best Volunteer: Someone who has worked tirelessly in the voluntary sector for many years.
Best Neighbour: A person considered the ‘heart' of the street. They look after neighbours and are always there to help.
Best Enterprise: A business which helps the environment or ‘gives back' to communities through school projects.
Best Art/Sport/Community Project: A person who helps give groups fresh purpose.
Spirit of Youth: This is for a bright spark who has demonstrated great achievements at a young age.
Service with a Smile: This is the person who gives everything they have to their job and the people they help.
999 Hero: Someone who, with bravery, has saved a life.
Best Garden: This ‘oasis' doesn't need to be set in acres.
Cares in the Community: This person has dedicated time to looking after someone in their home.
Making The Difference Award: For an outstanding individual, organisation or project that has made a huge contribution to the community.