Troubles campaigner, amputee model, selfless big brother and stroke survivor up for our Overcoming Adversity award
Four inspiring individuals who have overcome great adversity have made it to the final of this year’s Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards, with Ulster Bank
Among those shortlisted in the Overcoming Adversity Award category, sponsored by Hinch Distillery, is Peter Heathwood, a man known to thousands of victims of the Troubles.
The former history teacher has overcome serious disability and tragic loss to lead the fight for pensions for people who, like him, were seriously injured in the violence.
His campaign has served as an inspiration for countless activists across Northern Ireland.
Peter was left paralysed after loyalists shot him at his home in north Belfast in 1979 in a case of mistaken identity.
Medics were unable to get a trolley into the house, so they used a body bag to carry him to an ambulance, but when Peter’s father came upon the scene, he thought his son had been killed and dropped dead of a heart attack.
Peter, who was married at the time and had young children, spent a year in hospital recovering and now uses a wheelchair.
The attack was particularly hard on his wife Anne, who blamed herself because she opened the door to the gunmen. She turned to alcohol and died aged 51.
Despite living with constant pain, Peter has dedicated his life to the pension campaign, which started 13 years ago when a group of injured people met at the Wave Trauma Centre.
They organised a petition that was handed in to Downing Street, Stormont and the Dail and set about lobbying MLAs, with Peter playing a leading role in these endeavours.
Nominating him for our award, Alan McBride, from the Wave Trauma Centre, said: “The story of Peter and the pension is one of courage, determination and tenacity. To keep going for 13 years, against all the odds, and to see the pension being implemented in June this year is nothing short of remarkable.”
Also up for our award is Belfast model Bernadette Hagans, who overcame the trauma of losing a leg to cancer to devote her time to helping other young people battling the disease.
The 25-year-old, who had to learn to walk with a prosthetic leg, became a role model for people with disabilities after landing a modelling contract with a London agency.
Bernadette was 22 when she lost her right leg after being diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer that develops in the cells around joints and tendons.
After recovering, she got involved with charities, including the Cancer Fund for Children.
A finalist in this year’s Miss Northern Ireland contest — the first with a disability — Bernadette uses her influence on social media to spread a message of empowerment and hope.
She has worked directly with children fighting cancer and even arranged for 11-year-old old Enniskillen boy Samuel Sheppard to have his prosthetic leg personalised. Samuel’s mum Avril Sheppard said of Bernadette: “She wears her story with beauty and pride and this has inspired my son. She is an inspiration to all who cross her path.”
Our third finalist is a young man who gave up his dream of going to university to look after his brother after their mother lost her battle with alcoholism.
Joe Traynor (22), from Bangor, was forced to find work to support he and his younger brother Jack after mum Lynda died in 2018 aged 55.
Joe, who was 18 at the time, had planned to study sports science, but he didn’t hesitate to step up to the mark for his brother after the tragedy.
Joe previously explained: “Mum battled alcoholism and was so sick for a long time and it was very tough. When my mum died, it felt like my brother Jack and I were suddenly very alone in the world.
“Although we have good support now, it was like a hurricane had knocked the wind out of us.
“I couldn’t think about going to university. The focus for me was to get a job and start earning money to support us.”
Since landing a role with 14U Financial Solutions in his hometown, Joe hasn’t looked back — and thanks to his efforts, his brother is now a student at the University of Liverpool.
Our fourth finalist is Chris Mahood, who has overcome huge physical and mental health challenges since suffering a stroke 13 years ago. While he still struggles with the effects, the Annalong man devotes his time to helping others as the leader of the South Down Stroke Association.
The former landscape gardener was at home when he began to feel light-headed and then lost the ability to speak.
“I knew I had to get out of the house and get someone to call an ambulance for me,” he said.
“I couldn’t move the left side of my body. I remember dragging myself out of the house and more or less crawling to my neighbour’s house to get help.”
Chris spent three months in hospital and had to learn how to walk again.
“The first couple of years after the stroke, I was very angry at the world,” he said.
“I wasn’t able to return to work because my left side was too weak to manage the physical demands of the job I used to do.”
However, he found a new focus in life when he became leader of the South Down Stroke Association six years ago.
When everything stopped during lockdown, Chris kept going, ensuring members kept in touch through video conferencing and establishing an online art group.
He has also acted as a sympathetic ear for other stroke survivors through the Hear For You telephone support service.