Inspirational local people were recognised at the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers on Friday night.
The star-studded evening, held at the luxurious Culloden Estate and Spa in Holywood and televised on UTV this Wednesday at 8pm, was enjoyed by a galaxy of stars, but it was the 10 winners who stole the limelight.
The top honour of the night was given to big-hearted bar manager Willie Gregg, who accepted the award from Sunday Life editor Martin Breen, Specsavers NI chairman Brian O’Kane and top broadcaster Eamonn Holmes.
Portstewart man Willie runs Portrush’s famous Harbour Bar and each month tries to raise £2,000 for charity, having already accumulated hundreds of thousands of pounds for various causes.
Sunday Life was inundated with nominations for Willie, with some describing him as “an absolute legend” and “a small man with a huge heart”. Judges were in awe of Willie’s massive fundraising efforts.
He has supported many charities over the years, but mainly for his own charity, Willie’s Orphan Fund in Thailand. Moved by the devastation caused by the tsunami in 2004, Willie set up the initiative. Willie’s Orphan Fund has raised more than £250,000, which has helped educate hundreds of Thai children, built an orphanage, and brought groups of youngsters over to Northern Ireland from the Asian nation.
Willie, who is also working on a water project for Uganda, and has raised money for the Portrush lifeboat, Action Cancer and Guide Dogs for the Blind, received a standing ovation as he went up to collect his award on Friday night.
Upon accepting his award, he said: “I honestly think this is the first time I’ve ever been stuck for words.”
This year’s Spirit of Sport award went to Terry Canning, who touched the hearts of people around the globe when he carried an American woman over the finish line of the Boston Marathon back in April.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Omagh crew commander, who was running in aid of the Enda Dolan Foundation — a charity set up in memory of the Killyclogher teenager who was killed by a drunk driver — noticed that his fellow runner had collapsed and decided to help her complete the 26.2 mile race.
Presented by Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill and Ulster Rugby player Craig Gilroy, the Spirit of Sport award was supported by Modest Golf. The sports management company, co-founded by Slow Hands singer Niall Horan, gave super-fit Terry two VIP tickets for the Northern Ireland Open golf tournament at Galgorm Castle in August, where they will be the event’s official partner.
One Direction star Horan was also moved by the winner of our Spirit of Youth category, Cara McCartan, and has invited her for a meet and greet at the Northern Ireland Open.
The selfless seven-year-old from Newry helps her parents, who are both deaf and dumb, by interpreting for them via sign language. Last December she saved her mum’s life by calling the emergency services after noticing that she was struggling to breathe. Cara’s mother has cystic fibrosis and needs a lung transplant. She collected the award from homeware retailer Harvey Norman, who sponsored the category, and Coronation Street actress Lucy Fallon.
Andrea McAleese from Coleraine was the winner of our Overcoming Adversity award, which she accepted from Specsavers diector Tony McGinn and Game Of Thrones actor Ian McElhinney.
The Co Londonderry woman has dedicated her life to helping parents who have lost a child after her three-year-old daughter Roma was killed in a tragic accident outside her home.
Following two years of utter heartbreak, Andrea decided to give something back to the community who had helped her during this difficult time. Andrea held a pamper night for over 100 mothers who had lost a child, and soon built up a network of parents who had also experienced the unimaginable loss.
Andrea lobbied with the council for a piece of land and then raised £82,000 to build the Angel of Hope Garden, a place for grieving parents to remember their loved ones.
Aidan Crawford was also rewarded for his incredible fundraising efforts on Friday night. The Ballymena man accepted the Charity Champion award from Belfast boxer Ryan Burnett and Lidl Northern Ireland, which sponsored the category, for his work as president of St Vincent De Paul NI.
Most recently, Aidan has travelled to refugee camps across Europe and organised for 40ft containers filled with medical aid from local hospitals to be sent to Syria.
“It just makes it all worthwhile to see children happy,” he said.
In a very difficult category, the PSNI’s Sergeant Mark Wright was awarded 999 Hero. The top cop was stabbed in the head while trying to save a woman and two young children from a house in Lurgan.
Brave Mark confronted the dangerous assailant, who was armed with two knives, and was able to subdue and handcuff him, and ultimately save the three victims. The attacker was jailed for seven years.
Shocked by his win, which was presented by Miss Northern Ireland Anna Henry and Emmerdale actress Gaynor Faye, Mark told the audience that he was only doing his job and hailed his fellow police officers who he says face situations like that all the time.
Our Unsung Hero was Sean McLaughlin, who rescued two neighbours — one of whom is a wheelchair user — from their burning house, yet doesn’t consider himself to be a hero.
His actions were hailed by Fire Service commander Andy Russell, who said Sean had “undoubtedly saved the lives” of Gerard Toner and his partner Teresa from Derry.
After receiving his award from The Fall actress Bronagh Waugh and a representative from the National Lottery, which sponsored the category, modest Sean said that he was very humbled by the award.
Spirit of Education went to Gordon Cameron, who has been the Belfast Giants’ volunteer schools’ co-ordinator for the past 11 years. The retired teacher dedicates up to 40 hours a week delivering the ice hockey team’s healthy eating and lifestyle programmes to nearly 90 schools across Northern Ireland. He was given the award by Emmerdale’s Michelle Hardwick and Liam Fox.
Fellow Emmerdale soap star Dominic Brunt presented our Caring Spirit award to foster mum Mary McCauley, alongside a representative from Lidl, which also sponsored that category.
The Strabane woman lost twins at birth 22 years ago and has since fostered and adopted many children, offering them a loving home with her husband Martin.
Children’s community nurse Rosie Mulholland was given the Spirit of Health award by The Fall’s Niamh McGrady and a representative from sponsor Linwoods.
Kind-natured Rosie cares not only for her patients, but also her six children, two of whom have dealt with serious illnesses; her mother, who has dementia, and a child with complex needs who she fosters.
Full list of winners:
Winner of the Overall Spirit of Northern Ireland Award 2017: Willie Gregg of Portrush's Harbour Bar