While most people their age have spent the past year shielding from Covid-19, Co Antrim couple Diane and Patrick McCourt dedicated their time in lockdown to keeping an active three-year-old entertained.
At 71, they should be enjoying a well-earned retirement after a lifetime of opening their home and their hearts to more than 300 foster kids.
But it is typical of the winners of our 2019 Unsung Hero Award that they were reaching out to help a child in need, even in the middle of a pandemic.
Covid has meant the three-year-old they agreed to foster for a short time in December 2019 is still part of the family. Diane and Patrick, from Larne, helped him celebrate his fourth birthday and arranged for him to start nursery school.
For Diane, who has been fostering for more than 40 years, having a child in the house brings joy.
“Covid has held things up, so he is still with us. We are lucky enough to live in front of the park and we were able to get him out most days,” she said.
“When the park was closed during the first lockdown, we still went out for walks and he took his bicycle.
“It was easier during the summer when I got old wallpaper and laid it over the picnic table in the back garden so he could paint. The winter was a bit harder, but we had the TV. He loves Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig.
“You get into a routine. He has started nursery now. I have a grandson his age and they are good company for each other.”
As well as their own children — Adrian (48), Karen (43), Lee (28) and adopted daughter Gina (32) — the couple have two daughters who stayed with them from early childhood into their 20s, sisters Sarah (48) and Martha (45). They also have five grandchildren.
Adrian and Karen were both just tots when their parents welcomed their first foster child into their home in 1978.
The home soon became a vital safe haven when a child was in need of an urgent placement.
Diane and Patrick could never turn anyone away. They have had children of all ages, including many newborn babies. Some stayed for months, others for weeks and many for years.
Their foster daughter Sarah, son Adrian and his fiancee were at Titanic Belfast in the summer of 2019 to see their parents pick up our award. The couple got to the stage amid huge applause and were presented with their trophy by Emmerdale stars Gaynor Faye and Katherine Dow Blyton.
As we seek your nominations for heroes for this year’s Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Ulster Bank, Diane said: “We were over the moon as it was such a big surprise. It was a great night and we really were in shock.”
With need for foster carers an ongoing matter of urgency in Northern Ireland, Diane and Patrick’s contribution to the community is immeasurable.
Even though she had two small children of her own aged just five and three, Diane was desperate to help kids in need.
“I love babies, but I’m not too fond of the labour ward. I was in a friend’s house one day when a girl mentioned fostering. I thought it was something I would like to do and it started from there,” she said.
“I am just someone who loves kids and babies, and it has given both Patrick and I great enjoyment over the years.
“Sarah came to us when she was nine and left when she was 23. We also had her sister Martha from the age of six until she was 23.
“At one point, we had twins who came to us at three months old. They were with us for a year, so it was a busy house for a while.”
Many of the children who have come to Patrick and Diane have been through some difficult times, and the couple provided a loving home for them until a more permanent arrangement could be made.
Diane said: “Many of the children (we look after) have had a bad start in life. We have had wee ones who were physically abused and also abused in other ways too.
“They can be frightened and upset when they arrive, so we just try to get them settled in as best we can.
“It is lovely to see them developing and gaining confidence and starting to eat and sleep well.
“When they come, I always want to keep them, but you know you can’t.”
Diane has been a full-time mum to her children and foster kids over the years, while Patrick worked full-time.
Both have been dedicated to the children in their care, always trying to give them as fulfilling a childhood as possible, taking some of them on holidays overseas and enjoying weekly picnics in the park.
Diane said: “Having the children has got us out and about. We took Martha and Sarah with us to Italy on holiday.
“David, one of the boys we had, came to visit Patrick’s brother in New York with us for three weeks.
“We usually took them out on a Sunday with a picnic. We enjoy the games and getting out with the children.”
Now that they are in their 70s, Diane admitted that they are thinking of retirement, although she knows that in her heart it isn’t going to be easy to say no to a child in need.
“We are thinking about it (retirement), but we can’t decide. The children have bought us some great holiday vouchers, which we couldn’t use because of Covid, and we also love to go on cruises, so hopefully we have a few breaks to look forward to,” she said.
“Part of me doesn’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t have the children.”
The Boulevard in Banbridge is sponsoring both the Unsung Hero and Spirit of Sport awards in this year’s Spirit of Northern Ireland ceremony.
Chris Nelmes, retail director at The Boulevard, said the firm wanted to help shine a light on someone who had gone above and beyond in their community, as well as someone who had made a significant contribution to sport.
He added: “We are delighted to be able to sponsor two of the Spirit of NI awards this year, which will highlight some of the incredible heroes in our society. We look forward to hearing about all the inspirational people and the amazing work they have done throughout this past year.
“We would encourage the public to put forward any individual who they think would be deserving of the award so that the work they have achieved throughout this year and previous years does not go unnoticed.”
The popular Banbridge outlet centre was delighted to reopen again on Friday, welcoming back brands such as Dune London, Asics, Molton Brown and Adidas.
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