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Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards 2017: "Education award was an honour but helping kids is my biggest achievement"

If you know someone who, like Ildilko, makes the difference in your everyday life then it's time to get nominating.

By Stephanie Bell

It is the children whose lives she helps transform every day who Ildiko Veres thought of when she took to the stage to pick up her Spirit of Northern Ireland Award — and one year on their welfare is still the most important thing in her life.

The winner of our 2016 Spirit of Education Award has been principal of the independent special school Buddy Bear in Dungannon since it opened in 1993.

To the parents she is a woman of miracles, working hands-on every day with children who have cerebral palsy, helping them develop new pathways of learning and achieving milestones believed impossible.

The burden on Buddy Bear is that despite recognition by the authorities as a special school, it remains a charity, starting every year with the challenge of raising £150,000 just to continue its vital service.

As we seek nominations for unsung heroes for this year's Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers, Ildiko says while the award led to more children coming to the school, the weight of finances still hangs over the marvellous work they do.

She says: "It was absolutely brilliant to win the award and raise the profile of the school and we got four more children as a result.

"All the political parties support us and everybody is behind us, but the education authority still won't provide funding."

Ildiko, who is originally from Hungary, made her home here 23 years ago and says she feels blessed to be able to do what she can.

Grateful parents nominated her for the award which was presented by Emmerdale actor Dominic Brunt.

Ildiko shared her big moment with former pupil, Daniel Murphy, who was her guest for the evening and the young teen was thrilled to meet many of the celebrity guests.

Buddy Bear, which currently has 20 pupils is run by a small team that includes Ildiko, a second conductor, two classroom assistants, a secretary and its founder Brendan McConville, who works full time without a wage.

It is a unique way of teaching children with brain injuries and disabilities. Children who can't move, see or hear have left the school over the years able to sit up, walk, hear and see and in many cases go on to lead normal lives.

Says Ildiko: "Children here are not left to sit in a wheelchair all day. They start their day with a sage bath to loosen their muscles and then will do stretching exercises. Our aim is to help them to sit up, crawl, stand up and take their first steps and they will learn everything any other child will learn.

"There are no miracles, it is just dedication and working with the children to create new pathways of learning and building on those new pathways. We teach the parents what to do and how to help their children and the parents are just so delighted and grateful that they have been given hope and someone is telling them it can be done and there is a way to do it.

"We had one wee girl who came to us at 14 months whose parents had been asked three times to switch off her life support and they refused. Now that wee girl, who is eight, is at school and is currently moving from a walking frame to walking on two sticks and can sit on her own and speak and is leading a normal life."

Ildiko adds: "Even though we got an outstanding report in our last inspection the education authorities will still not tell parents about us if they ring up asking what special schools are there to help.

"Early intervention is crucial. The sooner I get my hands on a child the more progress they can make. You have no idea of the satisfaction of seeing a child who couldn't move their little finger begin to hold on to a toy or coming here registered blind and after treatment in our multi sensory room can wear glasses and watch TV."

Brendan McConville tirelessly lobbies on behalf of the school and in February hosted the leaders of all the main political parties who gave the school their backing.

The party leaders have pledged to arrange a meeting with the Secretary of State and despite the current uncertainty at Stormont, Brendan is confident it will take place soon.

He says: "The education authority is saying these children's needs can be met in a local special school, so they won't fund us. I taught in a special school and I was a very good teacher. I wouldn't have let children with cerebral palsy in as I wouldn't have known what to do with them.

"Their needs are completely different and these children are part of this community and have the right to be looked after."

You can nominate via our online entry form or by emailing spiritofniawards@sundaylife.co.uk.

Spirit of NI Award categories

Unsung Hero

Someone whose great deed or deeds have previously gone unnoticed, but who will have made a major contribution to your life or to your community.

Overcoming Adversity

Someone who has overcome huge personal challenges, whether it is dealing with illness or disability or overcoming problems.

Spirit of Youth

Someone under the age of 18 who should be recognised for their special achievements.

999 Hero

A member of the emergency services who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in their job.

Charity Champion

Someone who has worked tirelessly for a charity or as a fundraiser for many years.

Spirit of Health

A medical professional who has gone the extra mile to improve the health and wellbeing of their patients.

Spirit of Education

This award recognises a truly inspirational teacher who has helped children and young people to fulfil their potential.

Caring Spirit Award

A person, young or old, who has dedicated their time to caring for a friend or family member.

Spirit of Sport

Someone who has made an exceptional contribution to local sport over a number of years.

Overall Spirit of Northern Ireland Award

Someone who the judges feel best represents the Spirit of Northern Ireland by selflessly serving others and being an inspiration to us all.

Nominate your hero

  • There are 10 awards in total. You can nominate an unsung hero via our online form, or download the entry form which will also be available in Specsavers stores, or email your nomination to spiritofniawards@sundaylife.co.uk. Closing date for nominations is Friday May 5.
  • The Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers grand final will be at held at the Culloden Estate and Spa on Friday, June 16. All the finalists will be invited to the glittering awards ceremony, which will include entertainment, celebrity guests and will be shown on UTV on June 21.
  • Tickets for the gala awards ceremony cost £65, which includes dinner, table wine and entertainment from Boyzlife, can be purchased from JComms, Sylvan House, 232-240, Belmont Office Park, Belfast, BT4 2AW; by phone at 028 9076 0066, or e-mailing: mail@jprni.com

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