Boxing coach who helped hundreds of kids... now it's time to nominate your unsung heroes
A humble and dedicated north Belfast boxing coach who is seen as a hero to youth in his community picked up our Spirit of Sport Award last year.
As nominations open in this year's Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers, Paul Johnston of Monkstown Boxing Club says the award was not just a boost for him personally but for everyone in his local area who is working to improve the lives of young people.
It has been a busy year at the club where the team has been building on their youth work both inside and outside the boxing ring.
They have teamed up with a number of other organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors to launch Thrive, a new initiative aimed at helping to raise the aspirations and achievements of young people in the socially deprived Rathcoole estate.
It is a perfect fit for the club which already offers extensive support to youth thanks to the work of Paul.
Paul (49), from Newtownabbey, has volunteered as a coach with the club for 34 years and gives up his time freely in the evenings for kids.
Seven years ago he took up the post of project manager which saw him introduce BoxClever, a new programme to build confidence and improve the quality of life for hundreds of kids in his community.
The aim of the scheme was to tackle the high levels of underachievement among school kids in the area.
Paul introduced homework and breakfast clubs, sport-related work placements and coaching sessions for more than 100 young people from Monkstown, Rathcoole and surrounding areas each week.
Since it was introduced in 2012 over 1,000 young people have benefited from the scheme.
Paul was nominated for our award by grateful parents who described him as "an honest, kind, generous, hard working man who is a hero to many young kids from all backgrounds and is always on hand to do what he can for anyone."
One parent said: "Paul has been a rock to myself and my family. He has taken my 16-year-old from a scared and confused young boy to a caring, hard working and focused young man. Paul does many things for many people and does not get the recognition he deserves."
The parent added: "Paul is caring and passionate about trying to improve educational achievement and creating pathways to employment and building healthier lifestyles, bringing communities together and reducing crime."
Paul insists that everything achieved at the club is down to a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, but there is no doubt his lead has helped the programme have such a huge impact.
And his enthusiasm is obvious as he talks about Thrive and how it is helping to extend his good work even further.
He says: "Young people are at the front and centre of everything we do.
"With Thrive we are working with a number of organisations to help support young people in Rathcoole who struggle to get to university and good paying jobs.
"There is a sense of apathy in this area around education and achievement which our project is passionate about improving.
"We are focusing on young people at all stages of their development from their early years at primary school through to secondary school, making sure they are supported and that no child is left behind.
"It is about showing young people that with the right support and resilience they can come through adversity."
A big highlight of the past year for the club was seeing two of its young people - brother and sister Aidan and Michaela Walsh, pick up silver medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Paul says: "They are two fantastic role models not just inside but also outside of the ring.
"They have been an inspiration for the young kids and give up their time to talk to them and train alongside them."
Also this year the club is fundraising to take a group of 20 young people on the trip of a lifetime to volunteer in two orphanages in South Africa. They are also bringing a group on an exchange programme to Poland.
Paul says: "We will need to raise £20,000 to take the group of young people away to South Africa. As a club it will take us to a new level as we haven't done anything like that before.
"The young people will be working in local schools and orphanages and for them it will be a transformational life experience."
Paul was delighted to accept his award last year from world boxing champion Ryan Burnett.
Paul says: "It was a great privilege and really nice to think what we are doing at the club is being recognised. It isn't just me, there is a whole team of staff and volunteers behind me.
"I'm very humbled and very proud of the work the club does and to have it recognised gave everyone a real lift."
Two years ago the club was also recognised for its work when it won a National Lottery award which was presented to them by former world boxing champion Barry McGuigan.
Barry summed up what Paul has achieved: "Boxing appeals to hard-to-reach kids. This place can be like a second home and an extended family.
"It gives them stability and confidence and teaches them to apply themselves."
If you know someone who deserves to win this year's Spirit of Sport award or to be recognised in any of the other Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards categories you can nominate them now.
- You can nominate now at www.sundaylife.co.uk/spirit
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.
Someone who has overcome huge personal challenges, whether it is dealing with illness or disability or overcoming problems.
Someone under the age of 18 who should be recognised for their special achievements.
A member of the emergency services who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in their job.
Someone who has worked tirelessly for a charity or as a fundraiser for many years.
A medical professional who has gone the extra mile to improve the health and wellbeing of their patients.
This award recognises a truly inspirational teacher who has helped children and young people fulfil their potential.
A person, young or old, who has dedicated their time to caring for a friend or family member.
Someone who has made an exceptional contribution to local sport over a number of years.
Someone who the judges feel represents the Spirit of Northern Ireland by selflessly serving others and being an inspiration to us all