A couple who turned a friend’s life around when he hit rock-bottom during the pandemic are among three outstanding finalists in our Caring Spirit Award category, sponsored by Power NI.
Phillip and Alison Armstrong, from Cookstown, had no idea when they arranged a new job, home and car for their friend Leon Stewart last October that he had only months left to live.
Just as he got back on his feet after Easter, the 40-year-old was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and passed away in June.
Thanks to Phillip and Alison, he enjoyed some of his happiest months of his life after they arranged for him to leave England to start a new life in Northern Ireland.
Phillip and Leon’s friendship goes back many years to when they met in the RAF.
While they lost contact they became reacquainted on Facebook, but Phillip got worried after noticing a post by his friend last October.
He reached out to him and was shocked to find his old pal in very low spirits after losing his job as a taxi driver because of the pandemic.
Philip wasted no time in acting to help.
In a moving Facebook post, he wrote: “I knew straight away if I didn’t help, he was going to spiral in to somewhere no one needed to be.”
Through a pal, Phillip got a job for Leon, who was known as ‘Geordie’, as a van driver. He also sorted him out a house, bought some furniture and even got him a car.
On October 24, Leon took a leap of faith and left England to start over again, soon becoming part of the Armstrong family and enjoying his new home and job.
Just as life completely changed, he started to notice pains in his back. After he was diagnosed with a tumour in his lung, Leon’s condition became terminal.
Phillip and Alison, who nursed him through the illness, were heartened when their friend found God in his final weeks, keeping the Bible with him at all times.
The couple were with Leon when he passed away at 5.57am on June 4.
A devoted son who gave up his way of life to care for his dad in his final years has also been shortlisted for our Caring Spirit Award.
Philip Johnston (29), from Milford in Co Armagh, was nominated by his twin sister Laura, who said that her brother was determined to keep his dad’s wish to spend his last days at home.
Philip’s dad Eric, who was known for running the Armagh Bacon Agency family business and Pinkerton’s Pork, had Parkinson’s disease that had got much worse over the previous four years.
Philip took on the role as his dad’s main carer, even reducing his hours at work to part-time and taking a pay cut to be there for him.
His sister Laura said: “There were many occasions he had to miss out on, cancel his plans last-minute and even miss days of work when dad took unwell or a carer couldn’t make it at the last minute.
“He practically gave up his life for our dad from the age of 25. Philip was there morning noon and night.”
When his dad’s condition started to deteriorate last summer, Philip took six months unpaid leave from work to care for him.
Thanks to his son, Eric got his final wish, passing away in the comfort of his home on November 1 last year, surrounded by his loved ones.
Our final nominee is Natalie Toman, a 16-year-old with a heart of gold who helps to care for her 79-year-old grandfather Edward McBride, who has advanced dementia.
Natalie makes sure he takes his tablets, cuts up his dinner, makes and changes his bed and helps with his personal care, shaving, washing him and brushing his hair.
She was nominated by her mum proud mum Helen, who said: “The thing that makes Natalie so special is that she engages with him as if there is nothing wrong with him.
“She constantly tells him she loves him, she takes him for walks in his wheelchair and always praises him for remembering things.
“She plays games with him and recites his favourite poems, making up strategies to help his memory.
“On top of all this, she has studied hard for her GCSEs and is expecting to do well.”
Helen is convinced that without Natalie’s help her dad would be in a nursing home.