How Cookstown family rallied round tragic pal when he hit rock bottom
A couple who turned a friend’s life around when he hit rock bottom during the pandemic picked up our Caring Spirit Award 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 had got back onto his feet, the 40-year-old was diagnosed at Easter with terminal lung cancer and passed away in June.
Thanks to Phillip and Alison, he had just enjoyed some of the happiest months of his life after they arranged for him to leave England to start a new life in Northern Ireland.
The couple who have three children, Matthew (14), Aaron (12) and Laurenn (9), welcomed Leon into their home and their hearts and have been left devastated by his loss.
Phillip (43) recalls how he first met Leon, who he affectionately called Geordie because he was from north England, in his 20s when they were stationed together in Scotland in the RAF.
He says: “I joined the RAF in 1998 and the two of us had the same job looking after the flying kit.
“We worked in a bay with 10 others. When you work together like that you build relationships and you make friendships in the military which never leave you.
“We always looked after each other and had a great time together.
“After three years Geordie was posted to another camp and I came to work in Aldergrove. We didn’t see each other for years but we never lost contact and kept in touch mostly through Facebook.”
It was because of a post by his old friend on Facebook last October that Phillip was alerted to the fact that all was not well with him.
He decided to get in touch with Leon and was shocked to find his old pal was in very low spirits after losing his job as a taxi driver due to the pandemic.
Phillip wasted no time in acting to help him, revealing: “When I started my business Farm Tyres NI two years ago I made a promise to God that I would never use any extra money I made on extravagant things for myself but would use it to help others.
“I believe this man was put in front of me for that reason. I just knew that night I had to help him. He didn’t have anyone and was not in a good place. He just needed someone to care and I knew I would do it as part of my promise.”
Phillip secured a job as a van driver through a friend for Leon, arranged to rent him a house, furnished it and bought him a car, ready for his new start in Northern Ireland.
Just days after his desperate Facebook post, on October 24 last year Leon took a leap of faith and left England to start over again in Northern Ireland.
But just as he was fitting into a new life, looking and feeling happier than he had in years, tragedy struck when he was diagnosed with cancer just two weeks before his 41st birthday in May.
Phillip recalls what happened: “He arrived in Northern Ireland with a small TV in his suitcase, a box of memories his mother had given him and a few clothes, that’s all he had belonging to him.
“He was a lost soul. We lifted him every day and brought him to our house and he just fitted in.
“He had been lifting heavy furniture at work when around March time he took a pain in his back. The doctor put him off work with a sore back and then he got pains in his legs and was diagnosed with cellulitis.
“It was Easter and I remember sitting with him and thinking he looked really grey and I told him I was taking him to the hospital, where he was admitted.”
Just over a week later he was diagnosed with a tumour in his lung and his condition became terminal.
Nursed by Alison, both she and Phillip were heartened when their friend found God in his final weeks, keeping the Bible with him at all times.
They got to throw him a huge party for his birthday just two weeks before he died. His two friends Phillip and Alison were with him when he passed away at 5.57am on June 4.
Phillip says: “All he wanted was a birthday party and we went all out to give him a great party and he said it was the best day of his life.
“It has been a terrible loss. I struggle every day with it, we all do, and we talk about him all the time. That fella has missed out on a lot and it’s not fair.”
While this selfless couple made Leon’s final months happy and memorable, they never expected any recognition for it, making our award a complete surprise.
Phillip adds: “I feel absolutely honoured for anyone to even think about nominating us. We didn’t do it for recognition. No one would even have known about it if Leon hadn’t died. This is a real honour.”