Winning our Spirit of Youth award last year gave Co Antrim teenager Aine Hamill the courage to talk about her mental health issues online.
The Portstewart girl, who struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), started a blog on Instagram that has helped many teens around the world who live with the same mental health condition.
But it wasn’t just her positive attitude to illness which impressed our judges enough to secure the award.
The 13-year-old was singled out for her bravery in supporting mum Catriona (46) through breast cancer.
Not only was she a big help during her mum’s lengthy illness, but she and her cousin also raised more than £12,000 for cancer research.
With this year’s Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards in association with Ulster Bank now open, we are urging you to nominate a special young person in your life.
We are thrilled that Aine has benefited so much from winning last year’s Spirit of Youth Award, which was sponsored by Better Gyms.
She said: “It has definitely helped to boost my confidence, especially when it comes to posting about my OCD.
“I post about it on Instagram and I’ve had people thanking me and saying that just by talking about it I have helped them.
“It feels good to be helping other people out.”
Aine was devastated when her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2020.
There was further trauma for the family when Catriona’s sister Brid, who lives in Tipperary, was diagnosed with jaw cancer in October.
Thankfully, she made a full recovery and is now back in work as a teacher.
Aine got together with Brid’s daughter Caoimhe (12) to plan what became a phenomenally successful fundraiser.
The two girls, who live hundreds of miles apart, left their homes each day for 30 days in February and March of last year to walk 5km.
Using the tagline ‘every cancer patient should become a survivor’, they managed to raise an incredible £12,046 for cancer research.
Aine said their aim was simple: “I knew it was hard for my mum and aunt, but I also knew we were lucky because they would get better.
“We hoped to raise £100. I was really shocked when we raised over £1,000 in the first day and very shocked by the final amount of over £12,000.”
The Dominican College pupil, who was diagnosed with OCD four years ago, struggles with a fear of germs.
During the pandemic, she attended a virtual conference with other young people her age from across the UK who also live with OCD. It was the first time she felt confident enough to talk openly about her illness — something that she had tried to hide for years.
“If someone is struggling, they will message and the rest of us are there for them. It has been great,” Aine said.
“I’m actually managing my illness a lot better now and have more good days than bad.”
Her mum came through surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and herceptin treatment.
Catriona, who is now back in work as a children’s therapist with Woman’s Aid, explained: “I thought all my treatments were finished and I am doing well, but they are now putting me on this new drug because they say it could prevent recurrence of my type of cancer.
“To me, it is a good thing if it lowers my risk of the cancer coming back.”
Catriona, her husband James (47) and their sons Finn (10) and Ronan (25) are all proud of what Aine has achieved.
Catriona said: “Aine is a great wee girl and has been a great support to me.
“We were dreading telling her the news that I was sick, but she was just so positive about it.
“She has her struggles with OCD and it can be very difficult for her at times.
“When I was going through treatment, there were times when I felt guilty because I couldn’t do things for the children that I would normally do.
“But Aine just said to me, ‘You just concentrate on you and get better. You did everything for me before’. My son Finn was equally supportive and it was just lovely that I had that support.
“It was great to see Aine being so positive in the face of adversity.”
Aine was referred to mental health services aged six for anxiety. It was not until three years ago that she was diagnosed with OCD.
Simple things can be a struggle for her because she lives with a constant fear of germs.
When Covid struck, Catriona was worried for her daughter’s mental health, but in some ways the pandemic made life easier for Aine.
Catriona said: “Aine has had a lot of therapies and it has taken a long time for her to accept her diagnosis.
“She wouldn’t have told her friends because it was something she wanted to keep hidden.
“She attended a conference a year ago with the charity OCD UK. It involved talking to other young people [with OCD], which made her realise she wasn’t alone. For the first time, she felt able to talk about it.
“She has a fear of germs, which makes her afraid to socialise because she is afraid of getting sick.
“We worried when Covid came about, but it was actually good for her because she wasn’t the only one washing her hands — everyone had to do it.
“Having to stay at home and socially distance was a bit like a comfort blanket to her.
“We don’t know what caused it because no one else in the family has any anxiety.
“It can be debilitating for her, but she copes really well.
“I am very proud of my daughter and how resilient and proactive she is in the face of adversity.
“Winning the Spirit of Northern Ireland award really did make a huge difference to her.
“She is doing great now. She has a new confidence and is coping much better with her illness.”
This year’s Spirit of Youth category is sponsored by the charitable social enterprise Better Gyms, which works in partnership with Belfast City Council to operate and run the city’s leisure centres.
As a not-for-profit organisation, all money goes back into the community for staff development, investment in leisure centres, supporting young athletes and participation in sport.
The hope is that by transforming the city’s leisure services, ultimately more people — especially young people — will become more active, more often.
Jacqui Pope, head of service for Greenwich Leisure Limited, which runs Better, said: “The Spirit of Youth Award recognises the great potential and achievements of young people here.
“We are delighted to show our support for the special role young people play, for their achievements now, their potential in the future and the difference they can make to our community”.
To put forward a special young person for this year’s Spirit of Youth Award, simply email your nomination to email@example.com
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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