Belfast Telegraph

Brave Oscar Knox wins Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Award at star studded ceremony

By Stephanie Bell

The special men, women and children who sum up the true spirit of Northern Ireland were celebrated at a star studded awards ceremony hosted by Sunday Life and Specsavers in the Culloden Hotel.

Celebrities from top British soap Emmerdale joined many local personalities from TV and the world of sport to applaud the finalists and winners in our annual Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers.

The 2013 awards culminated in a memorable night where guests were treated to a four course meal followed by some top entertainment by Queen tribute band Flash Harry and comedian May McFettridge before hearing the inspirational stories of our finalists.

The overall Spirit of Northern Ireland winner was four-year-old Oscar Knox whose heroic battle with a rare and aggressive cancer captured the hearts and minds of the Northern Ireland public.

The tot melted every heart in the room when he flashed the audience his big smile as he took to the stage to collect his award with his parents Leona and Stephen and little sister Isobella.

The audience who gave our 2013 winner a standing ovation remained on their feet as Queen tribute singer Flash Harry gave an emotionally charged rendition of the iconic anthem We Are The Champions.

It was the perfect end to what had been a very special night for the hundreds who attended.

Pamela Ballantine and Franck Mitchell again proved the consummate hosts and UTV also recorded the event for a special programme to be screened on June 24.

May McFettridge had the house in stitches and the favourite Ulster housewife's Belfast humour seemed to go down especially well with Emmerdale star Bhasker Patel.

The real stars of the night however were the finalists and there were tears as well as cheers when their inspirational stories were read out to a hushed audience.

Everyone was a winner on the night but when the overall Spirit of NI Award was a announced there wasn't a dry eye in the room as wee Oscar took the award.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds poured in to help pay for treatment for Oscar to give him a chance of survival against the rare and aggressive childhood cancer neuroblastoma.

Instead of receiving the life saving treatment Oscar was left fighting for his life in America when a heart complaint was diagnosed.

He fought back from the brink twice and his courage throughout his tough battle inspired every one of his huge following of 30,000 people on Twitter.

News that Oscar was clear of cancer in April was described by his family as a miracle.

On Friday night there was no hint of the trauma of the last two years as his delighted family celebrated his special award.

His thrilled dad Stephen said: "We are delighted he has been picked. He really is such a special wee boy and a total inspiration but he is just one little fighter who happens to be in the public eye.

"There are many more kids who the public don't know about who are fighting and I would like to dedicate this to all of them."

Oscar was awarded two return flights to New York by American Holidays to recognise his achievements.

Winners in our other categories were just as overwhelmed and humbled by their award.

School bus driver Tommy Williams, 60, from Carrick was the winner of the Unsung Hero Award.

Tommy has opened his home to 25 foster children over the past 20 years.

He has also travelled twice at his own expense to Tanzania to help build houses for people with leprosy.

This big hearted granddad was overwhelmed to pick up the Unsung Hero Award. He said: "I am humbled and privileged to receive this award when I think of everybody else who was nominated. To me they all deserved to win it."

The winner of the Overcoming Adversity Award was a very special young woman from Comber -- Michaela Hollywood.

University of Ulster student Michaela, 22, is one of those amazing individuals who are always positive and working on behalf of others despite having to constantly battle in her own life.

She has a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy which means she has to spend her nights on life support and is physically restricted to the point that she cannot brush her own teeth.

Despite many setbacks in her health Michaela gets on with life and is a campaigner helping to change peoples' attitudes to disability.

She said: "I'm shocked and delighted to win. Hopefully it means that what I am doing is making a difference."

Another young person who was singled out for his courage was 18-year-old Ryan Cinnamond from Newry, who was the winner of our U105 Young Persons' Award.

Three years ago his life changed dramatically when he had to have his legs amputated after suffering a ruptured aortic aneurysm.

Since being fitted with prosthetic legs, Ryan, has made a remarkable recovery and even managed to carry the Olympic torch when it passed through Newry last year.

He is now hoping to get runner blades and aims to become a track competitor in the Paralympics.

Overawed to pick up his award, he said: "I'm over the moon to have won. It has been an amazing night."

This year's judges faced the usual difficult task in selecting our finalists and winners from the many worthy entries which poured in.

The unenviable job fell to TV personality Gloria Hunniford, Sunday Life editor Martin Breen, Specsavers chairman Tony McGinn and UTV's Orla McKibbin.

Gloria Hunniford could not attend the event as she was filming but sent a video message to the audience in which she described all the nominations as humbling and inspirational.

Editor of Sunday Life Martin Breen said: "Each year these awards get bigger and we receive more and more entries from people right across the province.

"Unfortunately we can only honour 15 and the judging panel led by Gloria Hunniford had an extremely difficult task in whittling down the vast array of truly awe-inspiring entries for unsung heroes right across Northern Ireland.

"We found ourselves asking with each one -- could I have done the same?

"At the awards we heard some of the most uplifting and inspirational stories as we recognised those ordinary people from all walks of life who have done extraordinary things.

"Each of the 15 finalists was a winner and they were all presented with a trophy as a small token of gratitude for the difference they have made to people's lives.

"We were all humbled to be in their company and listen to the truly remarkable accounts of the deeds they have done or the courage they have shown.

"These people are Northern Ireland's real national treasures. They have all helped make Northern Ireland a better place."