Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life Spirit of NI Awards 2018: Unsung heroes honoured at gala ceremony

Take a bow... our unsung heroes are centre stage on a glittering night

By Christopher Woodhouse

Unsung heroes who have made a difference to the lives of people across Northern Ireland were honoured at the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers.

The star-studded evening, held at the Crowne Plaza in Belfast and televised on UTV this Tuesday at 8pm, was attended by stars of stage, screen and sport. But it was our 10 winners who stole the limelight.

Guests at the awards on Friday night were moved to tears by our Spirit of Youth winner, Emily Magee, as she received her award from Derry Girls actress Jamie-Lee O'Donnell and Eamon McFadden from award sponsor, homeware retailer Harvey Norman.

In April 2017, the nine-year-old girl from Co Fermanagh lost her four-year-old brother in an accident on their family farm. Since then, she has raised almost £21,000 for the Make-A-Wish foundation to make dreams come true for other children. One Direction star Niall Horan, who helped judge this category, was unable to attend the event on Friday as he is on tour but sent a video message and revealed he will meet all the winners at the Northern Ireland Open golf tournament at Galgorm Castle in August, where his Modest Golf company will be the event's official partner.

"Emily is a little superstar, she is well and truly an inspiration and her brother Thomas would be very, very proud of her," said Niall.

Peter Dolan was the winner of our Overcoming Adversity award, which he accepted from Emmerdale actor Dominic Brunt, who plays vet Paddy in the soap, boxer Paddy Barnes and Jill Campbell, from overall sponsor Specsavers.

The Omagh man and his wife Niamh set up the Enda Dolan Foundation in memory of his son who was a first year student at Queen's University, Belfast, when he was killed by a drunk driver in 2014.

Peter uses the foundation to promote running and music, which were two of his 18-year-old son's great loves. Hundreds of people have taken part in his Omagh Park Run and a Run For Enda in the Omagh Half Marathon, including a Couch-to-5k and half marathon-training programme.

The devoted dad, who campaigns for tougher custodial sentences for drink drivers, also created a bursary for the top First Year Architecture student in Queen's.

Fiona Simpson, from Limavady, was rewarded for her incredible charity efforts on Friday night. She volunteers with ChildLine Foyle in Derry and is their longest-serving volunteer.

The amazing advocate for ChildLine received her Charity Champion award, sponsored by Best Parties Ever, from local Coronation Street star Charlie Lawson and Cate Conway of Q Radio.

Firefighter Noel McKee, who has worked for the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) for 30 years, was honoured with our 999 Hero award, sponsored by Ciara Daly Make-up. 

During this time he has raised over £1million for local charities including NI Cancer Fund for Children, Chest, Hope House and the Firefighters Charity. He has also tackled countless fires and come under attack by thugs at incidents.

Shocked by his win, which was presented by The Fall actresses Bronagh Waugh and Niamh McGrady, Noel told the audience that he was only doing his job and hailed his colleagues in the Fire and Rescue Service.

Our new Special Recognition Award, sponsored by Specsavers, went to nine-year-old Newry schoolboy Alex McMahon who is a young carer. Mum Martina (34) describes Alex as her "little superhero" and says she wouldn't be able to cope without him looking after his twin sisters Zoe and Ruby who have special needs. They have no support from a father figure so Alex jumped into the role. Sunday Life Editor Martin Breen, Specsavers store director Tony McGinn and X Factor judge Louis Walsh presented the inspirational child with his award.

Accepting his award, Alex joked: "I honestly think this is the first time I've ever been stuck for words."

This year's Spirit of Sport award went to Paul Johnston of Monkstown boxing club who was nominated for the work he has done with hundreds of disadvantaged youngsters.

In addition to boxing training, he runs an educational programme for teenagers struggling in school, runs a breakfast and after-school club and a homework club.

Paul was presented with his award by world boxing champion Ryan Burnett and Alan Waterman of category sponsor, Phoenix Health and Fitness.

Receiving his award, Paul said: "It's a great honour to be taking this award back to Monkstown."

Our Unsung Hero award, sponsored by Homecare Independent Living, went to the Community First group which is based in the Shankill area of Belfast.

They have been responsible for raising thousands of pounds for great causes. Among the many great deeds they have done, they have helped raise £80,000 for a rare cancer treatment, assisted those whose houses have been robbed and fundraised to help more than 60 kids in care to have a nice Christmas.

The seven-strong group received their award from Coronation Street actors James Burrows and Ryan Clayton.

Spirit of Education went to The Buddy Up project from Holy Cross and Edenderry Nursery Schools in Belfast. Sponsored by Studyseed, the award was presented by Tim McGarry and Damon Quinn of Give My Head Peace fame to Cushla Mallon, Nuala Gallagher, Nancy McGrath and Lisa Dietrich.

Derry Girls and Game of Thrones actor Ian McElhinney, who sat on the judging panel for this year's awards alongside golfer Darren Clarke, presented our Caring Spirit award to Pearl and Alistair Brown.

The couple, who live in Warrenpoint, are parents to seven special needs adults, five of whom are adopted children, two boys with cerebral palsy and three Downs Syndrome girls, all in their 30s and 40s. Their own son has special needs and they have also fostered a 12-year-old boy with special needs from birth.

Alistair was unable to attend as he was at home caring for their children but Pearl received a huge round of applause as she took to the stage to accept her award, sponsored by Power NI.

The Eating Disorder Team, from Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) at Antrim Area Hospital received the Spirit of Health award from Emmerdale actress Gaynor Faye and Aideen Duggan, managing director of award sponsor Keenan Healthcare.

One of those who nominated the team wrote: "My 15-year-old daughter planned suicide because of anorexia.  She could not live with it anymore and was tortured.  She has lived with anorexia for a long time and it's only because of the CAMHS team recognising the illness that she is here today.

"They have saved not just Anna's life but many other children, yet their funding is poor. They are true lifesavers."

n You can find out more about all of our winners in the hour-long special on UTV, Tuesday, 8pm.

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