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Spirt of NI Awards 2021: Teacher Cathy Burns ‘a true gift to the people of Tyrone’

Selfless and devoted teacher hailed as heartbeat of school

‘A true gift to the people in her life’ is just one of the many tributes paid to Cathy Burns, the winner of our Spirit of Education Award sponsored by Harbinson Mulholland.

Adored and appreciated by all who know her, Cathy dedicates her career and free time to enhancing the lives of others in her local community in Co Tyrone.

As a classroom assistant in St Dympna’s Primary School in Dromore she is dedicated to parents, teachers and children alike.

Outside of school, the mum-of-two devotes her spare time to a host of local community groups and charity work, helping out in parent associations, sports groups and volunteering with community summer schemes.

It came as no surprise to those who know her that during the pandemic she devoted her time to others, making PPE for frontline workers and her local community.

As someone who does not seek the spotlight, she was overwhelmed to be nominated for our award.

She admits: “I was completely blown away and I cried when I was told I had been nominated.

“I feel very humbled as I don’t think I do anything that everyone else doesn’t do.”

Those who know Cathy would beg to differ.

As one friend said: “To sum up Cathy… her positivity is just infectious and she is a true gift to the people in her life.

“Her kindness and generosity inspires others to be better people.”

The vice principal of her school described her as “the one person who, no matter what the circumstances, always puts others in front of herself.”

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Cathy Burns and husband David with sons Charlie and Tom

Cathy Burns and husband David with sons Charlie and Tom

Cathy Burns and husband David with sons Charlie and Tom

In the past year Cathy (47) and her family have come through a traumatic time as she battled breast cancer.

Her boys Charlie (12) and Tom (9) and husband David (45), a secondary school teacher, were there to support her through intensive treatments.

Diagnosed in October 2020 she has come through surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

She is still undergoing treatment which will continue until March of next year.

Ever positive, she says: “It has been a very busy time and thankfully now we are out the other side of it. You just have to get up and get on with it. I have two wee boys to think about.

“I was blessed that my boys are the age they are as they kept me busy with home schooling.

“It was quite good for us because of Covid and being home together, as we had special family time.”

During the first lockdown Cathy organised a team of 24 volunteers to sew more than 3,000 masks for her local community.

She also raised over £2,000 which was used to buy a cuddle cot for stillborn babies in Omagh Hospital as well as six mini fridges for people in palliative care.

The dedicated classroom assistant recalls: “I knew through a cousin who is a midwife that there was a real shortage of face masks so I watched a YouTube tutorial on how to make them and borrowed my sister’s sewing machine.

“I then put out an appeal on Facebook for people to help and before I knew it I had 24 girls getting their sewing machines out.

“They made them and I would bring them materials and then go and collect them and distribute them.

“We brought them to the local hospital, nursing homes and local shops, anywhere they were needed.”

However, it is as part of the team at St Dympna’s and her dedication to both staff and the children that she really does inspire.

One colleague says: “She is a member of a school community that all work very hard but she is the one that is the heartbeat of the school that would always help, stay late, come in sick, worry about everyone else and clean up after others endlessly.” Another added: “She works tirelessly for the children and motivates and enthuses the staff on pretty much a daily basis.”

Even while undergoing treatment for cancer, Cathy stayed in touch with the children in school via Zoom.

Although she has had to take a year off work she is now hoping to return to the classroom in October.

While dedicating her time to others, she too has been touched by how many people have been there to support her during her illness.

She adds: “The past year has been a bit of a roller-coaster. I have a lot of mixed emotions as everything just changed for me dramatically.

“People have been so good to me, they really have been there for me in the past year.

“In school we are like a wee family, everyone gets on so well and they have been amazing to me throughout it all.

“I am really looking forward to hopefully getting back to work in October.”


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