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Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards 2015: Meet our five Unsung Heroes

By Christopher Woodhouse

Published 26/05/2015

Thomas Rodgers, who for 25 years has been a ceaseless fundraiser for charity. Pic: Colm O'Reilly/Sunday Life.
Thomas Rodgers, who for 25 years has been a ceaseless fundraiser for charity. Pic: Colm O'Reilly/Sunday Life.
Support: John McMullan is a full time carer for his son Declan who has Locked-in Syndrome. Pic: Colm O'Reilly/Sunday Life.
Claire Curran, who works at the Survivors of Suicide charity in east Belfast. Pic: Colm O'Reilly/Sunday Life.
Patricia Nevines at the Talnotry Animal Care Centre which she has run for 35 years. Pic: Aidan O'Reilly/ Sunday Life.
Derry man Ted McQuilkin, 80, saved his neighbours from a house fire. Pic: Trevor McBride/Sunday Life.

Meet our fantastic five finalists in the Sunday Life Unsung Hero Award category of this year's Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers, which recognises extraordinary acts by ordinary people.

All of our five finalists featured here today have proved themselves to be an everyday hero in their own individual way.

Our nominees will be treated to a top class night of great food and entertainment at the grand final of Northern Ireland's leading awards ceremony in the five star Culloden Hotel in Holywood on Friday, June 12.

Like last year, UTV will be recording the awards for a special one-hour TV programme presented by Pamela Ballantine and Frank Mitchell, who will also be our hosts on the night.

Entertainment will be provided by comic May McFettridge and another act to be announced shortly. In what is also a moving occasion, guests will be introduced to all of our finalists and get to hear their heroic stories.

Winners in the three categories (the other categories are the Specsavers Overcoming Adversity Award and U105 Young Persons Award, whose finalists we will preview in the coming weeks), as chosen by a judging panel headed by X Factor star Louis Walsh, will be announced on the night, as will the overall Spirit of Northern Ireland Award winner, who will receive a £1,000 cash prize from Northern Ireland's fastest-growing care recruitment and domiciliary agency, Peninsula Care Services.

Louis Walsh said: "I'm excited to see this year's nominations and look forward to meeting the finalists on June 12."

Tickets for the gala awards ceremony cost £60, including dinner, table wine and entertainment, and can be purchased from JPR, Sylvan House, 232-240, Belmont Office Park, Belfast, BT4 2AW; by phone at 028 90760066; or e-mail at mail@jprni.com.

Thomas Rodgers

For the last 25 years Thomas has been a tireless charity organiser at the Lloyds Banking Group in Belfast.

He modestly describes himself as just the "persuader, organiser and coercer" who motivates colleagues to volunteer in the name of a good cause.

For his own part, the west Belfast man, 46, has run in marathons, 100k trail treks and even organised Christmas and Easter gift collections, raising a staggering £503,000 in just the last five years.

He has even put in an astonishing amount of his own time for charities including the Alzheimer's Society, Children In Need and the Simon Community. "It started off small but now we raise around £100,000 a year," Thomas told Sunday Life.

Thomas pushed himself so hard on one trek that he ended up on a drip suffering from severe dehydration.

"It's worth it in the end, given what it achieves and who it raises money for: people who have to walk for miles with a bucket on their heads to get water," he added.

"I do it because I want to, so recognition comes as a surprise as you try and keep yourself under the radar."

John McMullan

In March 2012 a tragic heart attack left Declan McMullan with locked-in syndrome, trapped in his own body, unable to move or communicate with the rest of the world.

Since then his father John has given up his life to care for his 22-year-old son.

Saintfield painter and decorator John, with the help of his wife Brenda and children Mark and Anna, tries to give the best quality of life possible to Declan. His son Mark recently hit the headlines after a short video of him singing Bring Him Home from the hit musical Les Miserables went viral on the internet.

From the basics like feeding, dressing and bathing to even getting Declan along to see his favourite singer Olly Murs, John is giving his son back the life he had given up on.

John, 47, told Sunday Life: "Something like this gives you a different perspective on life, you change your way of thinking and you appreciate your life and health much more because someday it could be you.

"If our family can raise awareness then people might realise that there are a lot more families like us who don't get help and who are suffering."

Claire Curran

Claire has dedicated her free time to helping those who have hit their lowest point in life through her work with the Survivors of Suicide charity in east Belfast.

For eight-and-a-half years Claire has run support groups, training and one-to-one sessions with people affected by suicide on a purely voluntary basis.

Claire manages all this while caring for her son who has ADHD, Asperger's syndrome and learning difficulties.

Claire told Sunday Life: "What I do is about helping and supporting people and making a difference to them.

"The important thing for me is that my nomination will raise awareness and get people talking about suicide prevention, letting people know that they are not on their own and they don't have to suffer in silence.

"I don't see it as special, there are loads of people like me who do things like this."

She added: "Without the help and support of the local community and businesses we wouldn't be able to do what we do."

Patricia Nevines

Patricia's Co Antrim animal sanctuary started just over 35 years ago when she was asked to care for 26 abandoned racing pigeons.

TACT - Talnotry Avian Care Trust - and its staff of volunteers continue to care for and rehabilitate abandoned or injured animals at their Crumlin centre to this day.

Despite ill health and having just entered her 81st year, Patricia is still running the animal sanctuary.

Around 150 animals are being looked after by Patricia's charitable trust, everything from tiny newborn chicks to swans and baby foxes.

The trust doesn't humanely destroy an animal if it can be released or re-homed. However, many cannot be released and, rather than see them die, Patricia lovingly cares for them.

Patricia told Sunday Life: "It's amazing because we have youngsters who work here that would be reluctant to talk at home but when they're with the animals they will talk away, you just wouldn't believe the difference.

"I'm supposed to be retired but I don't know what that means, I have creatures that arrive in the evening and I have to look after them overnight.

"However, I thoroughly enjoy it and I want to keep it going for as long as I'm physically able and I have it in my will that the house will be passed on to TACT."

Ted McQuilkin

At the age of 80 Ted saved his friends and neighbours from a house fire thanks to his brave actions and using a mobile phone for the first time in his life.

Ted, who lives at a sheltered housing scheme in Derry, raised the alarm after a fire started by vandals spread to an oil tank and threatened to engulf a neighbour's home.

"I left my regular bridge night about 20 minutes earlier than usual and I left my bridge partner off home but when I got out of the car I heard crackling," explained Ted.

"I looked to my right and saw flames rising above one of the bungalows, coming from the back," he said.

Ted, using his mobile phone for first time, called the fire brigade before rushing to the house to bang on the front door.

"I kept thumping and banging on the door where an 85-year-old lady lives, she eventually answered and I got her out.

"When I took the old lady to show her the flames and burning oil at the back of her house, she said, 'Thanks very much son'."

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