Even the Covid-19 pandemic could not stop one very special Northern Ireland family from working to keep community spirit alive and the coffers of local charities topped up.
The Mullen family from Strabane — dad Paul (57), mum Rosemarie (55) and daughter Sarah-Jane (26) — lifted moods at the height of the health crisis by taking their popular community events online, raising almost £40,000 for local charities.
They are so highly regarded for their tireless volunteering that they were nominated for, and went on to win, the Special Recognition award at the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards in 2019.
The award, sponsored this year by Ulster Bank, recognised the family’s years of selfless work.
Paul, Rosemarie and Sarah-Jane are the driving force behind an annual Strictly Come Dancing-style event.
To avoid its cancellation during lockdown last December, they staged it virtually, raising £13,000 for charity in the process.
They also staged a Christmas bazaar online, raising another £13,000 over three nights, a virtual Easter market, which banked another £7,000, and a parish draw that raised £6,500.
Paul, an office manager, community auxiliary nurse Rosemarie, and primary school teacher Sarah-Jane have raised almost £900,000 over 14 years, all while bringing happiness to people in their town.
Among the people and the groups that have benefited from their hard work are Foyle Hospice, the Alzheimer’s Society, the breast screening unit at Altnagelvin Area Hospital, mental health charities, the homeless and children with Down’s syndrome and special needs.
One of the many people who nominated the Mullens for our award said: “This family is special and is a symbol of all that is good in this place. [They are] true community leaders.”
That quality came to the fore during one of the most difficult years ever faced by the community, with the family determined to keep their charity events going.
“We knew quite early on in the pandemic that the Strictly event would not be able to go ahead as usual and that we had to find a way to avoid cancelling it completely,” explained Paul.
“We promoted it on social media to get sponsors and we decided on a champion of champions event featuring seven couples from previous contests who hadn’t danced against each other before.
“We showed the videos of them dancing online and people voted. It went really well and had superb support. We even managed to raise a few pound.”
The project’s success showed the Mullens they could also stage their annual Christmas bazaar on the internet.
They again incorporated social media into the event, which people in the town embraced.
“Businesses were superb in donating. The prizes ranged from £1,000 in cash to smart TVs,” Paul said.
“We sold tickets on social media and raised £13,000 over three nights.
While the bazaar was a roaring success, it did not sit well with the family that people were missing out on coming together in the local parish hall for a draw that normally goes ahead at a Christmas party.
The plan now is to bring the festivities to the town in June, complete with a Christmas tree, seasonal tunes and even a visit from Santa.
Paul told Sunday Life: “I know Christmas in June sounds unusual, but why not after the year that we have all had?
“We are waiting to see what restrictions there might be on music. If we can’t hold it this month, it will be a Christmas party in July.”
Paul and Rosemarie met through their shared love of dancing, but they stopped after their daughter was born.
A few years later, they thought it might be something their community would enjoy.
“Strictly Come Dancing had just come back onto the TV and we decided to have a go at running our own version locally,” Paul said.
“It was so successful that it soon became an annual event in St Patrick’s Hall in Strabane.
“Initially, we did it for one charity, but it just kept growing, so we decided that several charities should have a slice of the proceeds and we’ve always kept the money for local charities here in Northern Ireland.”
The fundraiser grew so big that it now takes the family a year to organise it, with Strabane lit up for two nights every December as 22 couples compete in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 400 people.
Before the show, Paul, Rosemarie and Sarah-Jane spend weeks staging rehearsals for contestants across the north-west area.
Paul also coordinates and produces the night, while Sarah-Jane handles promotion and social media.
“I would start recruiting for the next one immediately after the shows end,” Paul said.
“There is a lot of work getting sponsors on board, but local businesses have always been very generous to us.
“Sarah-Jane has been coming along to rehearsals with us since she was 12.
“Sometimes we are out four or five nights a week and maybe have two rehearsals on a Sunday afternoon all round the north-west area.
“She and Rosemarie are the dance teachers, but over the years we have built the shows so they’re not just about dancing. We include music and singing acts, so it has wider appeal.”
In keeping with their love of dancing, the family also helped raise spirits during lockdown by organising some safe and socially distanced dancing in the street.
Winning our Spirit of Northern Ireland Award meant the world to the Mullens.
“It was such an honour and a privilege as there were so many worthy participants,” Paul said.
“It was a great night and we enjoyed every minute of it.”
If you know a family like the Mullens who are doing extraordinary things for other people, nominate them today for our Special Recognition Award.
Terry Robb, head of retail banking NI at sponsors Ulster Bank, said: “We’re really honoured to support the awards and in particular the Special Recognition Award.
“It will recognise someone who the judges feel represents the spirit of Northern Ireland by serving others and being an inspiration to us all.
“This aligns extremely well with Ulster Bank’s purpose, which is to help local communities to thrive.
“That’s why we are so pleased to work with Sunday Life again to recognise people making a real difference to the lives of individuals and communities.”