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Local hero awarded for her compassion during lockdown

Carlee Letson spent hours on the phone during the pandemic, listening and offering support to all who were struggling with mental health issues

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Carlee Letson with nominators Peter McAllister and Chloe Dunlop at last year's Spirit of NI event

Carlee Letson with nominators Peter McAllister and Chloe Dunlop at last year's Spirit of NI event

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Carlee Letson with Pamela Ballantine

Carlee Letson with Pamela Ballantine

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Carlee Letson with her Point of Light Award from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson

Carlee Letson with her Point of Light Award from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson

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Carlee Letson with nominators Peter McAllister and Chloe Dunlop at last year's Spirit of NI event

Carlee Letson spent every day and many long nights during the pandemic on the phone helping people of all ages struggling to cope with their mental health.

The winner of the Unsung Hero Award sponsored by the Boulevard in Banbridge has dedicated her life to suicide prevention and found her skills were needed more than ever during the health crisis.

As we launch this year’s Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland awards in association with Ulster Bank nominations for Unsung Hero and all 11 categories are open now.

Carlee’s incredible work in suicide prevention made her a worthy winner in 2021.

In the past two years because of the pandemic, she has seen calls to the helpline of her charity soar by 70 and the 59-year-old Larne woman was there to support and lend a listening ear to people of all ages.

She says: “Lockdowns caused a lot of damage to mental health. It was all ages. Elderly people really suffered with the isolation of it and young people too because they couldn’t socialise.

“I also spoke to many parents who were worried about their children and young people and how they were dealing with being locked at home.”

Carlee’s heart for helping people in despair came about after a tragic event in her own life when she lost her brother Arthur to suicide in 2006, aged just 34.

Unable to recover from the shock of his sudden loss, Carlee decided more needed to be done to improve mental health services in her home town of Larne.

She gathered a petition which was successfully secured a new mental health team for the area and then went on to study to become a professional counsellor, launching the charity Every Life Matters NI (ELM) Suicide Prevention.

Since then, she has been at the end of a phone day and night for anyone struggling with mental health and has travelled miles at every hour to intervene if she feels someone is suicidal.

While she has helped thousands of people and saved countless lives over the years, for Carlee the pain of not being able to help her own brother is something she says, that never goes away.

“It was September 19, 2006 and Arthur had sat with me and had sandwiches and a mug of tea and talked for two hours. It was just 15 minutes later that he went home across the road and hung himself,” she recalls.

“I was on my way to Belfast when my sister rang to tell me and I heard screaming and then realised it was me screaming.”

One of 11 children reared by their single mother, Carlee is close to all her siblings and the loss of Arthur, a father of four, hit her very hard.

Known for her good nature, she was uncharacteristically angry for months afterwards.

In 2008 she established her charity ELM and in 2015 went back to college to study for her counselling qualifications.

Now working with a team of nine at ELM, it has become the “go-to place” for anyone suffering from mental health or suicidal thoughts throughout the East Antrim area.

Carlee specialises in intervention counselling — speaking to people when they are at their lowest and haven’t yet sought medical support.

It was a service which is sadly always in demand but nothing prepared her for the damage lockdown did to so many.

She explains: “The phones haven’t stopped. One elderly lady had lost all of her clubs and friends. She used to go out four days a week and that all stopped and all contact with people was lost.

“Eventually because of the loneliness she took to her bed and felt she had nothing to live for. She actually passed away recently.

“I had one wee lady on the phone all night, again because she was so lonely. Day had dawned and it was 5.15am before we got off the phone. It was just the company she needed.”

Despite being among the vulnerable category because of an auto immune condition, Carlee who has one son William (38), still found a way to visit those most in despair.

Keeping a safe distance by talking to them from outside their open front doors she managed to persuade many not to give up.

She says: “I believe you need to see peoples’ faces so I still met people. They would have sat down the hall from where I was at the door and I could see the expression in their eyes.

“My mother used to tell me that the eyes are the window to the soul and you can see when someone is not coping. I came across quite a few who had had enough and were suicidal.”

A remarkably selfless woman, her life-saving work was honoured recently when she was given a prestigious Point of Light Award by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Picking up our award last year is something she says she will never forget.

She adds: “My heart was thumping through my ribs getting it but it does spur you on to do even better.

“It was a really brilliant day and I got to sit beside Pamela Ballantine who made the experience even more special. I still want to know where she got her shoes from.

“People in the town kept stopping me to say they had seen me in the paper. I usually keep myself to myself and I was blown away by the award and how many people congratulated me.”

A big supporter of the Spirit of NI Awards, the Boulevard, home to more than 50 of the world’s best-known retail brands, is once again on board to ensure we find Northern Ireland’s 2022 Unsung Hero.

Marketing Manager Leslie Poots said: “We are delighted to sponsor the Unsung Hero category at this year’s awards. The Boulevard is all about celebrating and showcasing local community and it is great to get the opportunity to reward someone who deserves recognition for making a difference in people lives.”

• If you or someone you know is in despair, you can contact ELM at 07530797716.

• If know someone who deserves to be recognised in this year’s Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards, entries are open now for our Unsung Hero Award at spiritofniawards@sundaylife.co.uk

• All the winners will be honoured at a gala event at the Culloden Resort and Spa on September 30.

AWARDS CATEGORIES AND HOW TO NOMINATE:

Unsung Hero (sponsored by The Boulevard)

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 (sponsored by Better)

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

999 Hero (sponsored by Shield Accident Management)

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 well-being of their patients.

Spirit of Education

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

Caring Spirit Award (sponsored by Power NI)

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.

Climate Hero (sponsored by Concentrix)

Seeks to recognise an individual or community group going the extra mile to care for and protect the local environment for future generations.

Special Recognition

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

Nominations will be received up until August 22. To nominate someone couldn’t be easier. Simply email your nominations to us at spiritofniawards@sundaylife.co.uk and tell us the story of the person who has made a difference. You can also post nominations to us at Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards, 33 Clarendon Road, Belfast, BT1 3BG



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