Northern Ireland bar manager still helping victims of tsunami
Twelve years on from the Thai disaster, Portrush man's charity is still going strong
A big-hearted Portrush man marked yesterday's 12th anniversary of the devastating tsunami in south east Asia by redoubling his efforts to help children in the worst affected regions of Thailand.
And while some charities which were set up after the disaster on Boxing Day 2004 have closed down, bar manager Willie Gregg vowed: "We still have work to do."
His charity, Willie's Orphan Fund, has helped scores of youngsters who lost their families in the tsunami which killed over 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean.
Willie established his charity after watching pictures of what he subsequently called 'the devil's bulldozer' ravaging a part of the Thai island of Phuket that he knew well from his holidays there.
Willie, who runs the award-winning Harbour Bar in Portrush, collected thousands of pounds in the weeks after the tsunami and flew out to Thailand to offer his services.
He was shocked by the plight of hundreds of young children who had been orphaned by the mountainous waves and quickly realised that some of the youngsters were being recruited into the sex trade by traffickers.
The former fisherman worked with a number of charities in Phuket before setting up his own Willie's Orphan Fund, which channelled money raised in Northern Ireland into the newly-formed Baan Than Namchai orphanage in the Khao Lak region.
The orphanage was home to upwards of 100 children and in later years Willie has also helped to underwrite the education bills of hundreds more youngsters.
Willie told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday that he initially thought his charity efforts would last no more than a year.
"But the needs were great even after 12 months, so I continued to raise money thanks to the generosity of people in Northern Ireland. I reckoned that after five years I had definitely done my bit, so to speak. But I realised that there was more to do and after 10 years I toyed with the idea of quitting, but again there was no end in sight to the needs of the young people.
"Now it's 12 years since the tsunami and the fund still has a crucial role to play, though it is getting more and more difficult to keep the tragedy in the forefront of people's minds, especially as the world has seen so many awful things in the intervening years.
"But I am determined to keep going for the sake of the youngsters over in Thailand"
Willie has now scaled back on the number of high profile fundraisers he organises, but added: "Thankfully there are many, many generous individuals who still send money to the fund by direct debit and businesses and schools across the province also still give me their support.
"Just this week, pupils from Inst in Belfast sent me a large donation raised from a non-uniform day they had at the school."
Willie says it takes £2,000 a month to fund his commitments to the orphanage and he adds that he hasn't missed a payment in the last 12 years. Willie says that many of the orphans now studying at universities return to the orphanage to help out during their holidays.
The home is now a refuge for children who have been abandoned by their parents and Willie says that he is assisting a large charity from Australia called Hands Across the Water with setting up a new kindergarten and sleeping quarters for the youngsters.
A music room has been added to the home and Portrush golfer Graeme McDowell donated money to fund the building of a new treatment room at the orphanage, and a number of Ulster rugby players have also helped out.
Willie regularly brings orphans to Northern Ireland and a party of seven children travelled to Londonderry recently to sing at the grave of Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Anderson, who often promoted the work of the orphan fund on his show.
As for the future, Willie said: "I can't foresee a day when the fund says goodbye to these amazing children in Thailand."
Meanwhile, in Tyrone yesterday the family of the only Northern Irish victim of the tsunami marked the anniversary of the tragedy quietly in Cookstown.
Connor Keightley (31) was on holiday on the island of Phi Phi when the tsunami struck. Members of his family including his sister Michelle and Darina travelled to Thailand after the disaster and eventually found Connor's body in the resort of Krabi.