MEET our 999 Hero finalists in this year’s Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards, in association with Ulster Bank.
Making the cut in the category, sponsored by Hastings Hotels, are the volunteers of K9 Search & Rescue NI, a charity that uses specially trained dogs and handlers to find missing people.
The unassuming group of volunteers was set up by Bangor man Ryan Gray, who also saves lives in his career as a coastguard.
The 12-strong team is made up of highly trained and dedicated people who give up their spare time to help families in their hour of need.
They currently work with air-scenting scenting dogs, cadaver dogs and water-scenting dogs, meaning they are prepared to handle a range of scenarios.
Alongside working on any missing persons case they are approached about, the members of the group train hard every week. The initial training involves hours of assessments, all paid for from the pockets of those taking part.
Once completed, the volunteers are granted permission to join searches.
With the number of people declared missing continuing to rise, the person who nominated K9 Search & Rescue NI described the group as “a hidden gem working in the background to reunite people with their loved ones”.
Also shortlisted for this year’s award is big-hearted PSNI man Graham Dodds, who earlier this year saved the life of a nine-year-old schoolboy by donating a kidney to him.
Mr Dodds, who joined the force 23 years ago and is the Chief Inspector for Fermanagh and Omagh, decided to take action after noticing an appeal launched by Mary Dolan about her son Joshua.
Joshua’s mother turned to the public in desperation after her son became critically ill and tests showed no family member was a suitable donor match.
Graham had no hesitation in picking up the phone and putting his name forward.
Four years earlier, he had undergone tests to see if his kidney was a match for a colleague who needed a transplant.
While that did not happen, he got another chance with Joshua. The surgery went ahead at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital in May, but Graham and Joshua only met for the first time last week.
The schoolboy, who dreams of one day becoming a police officer, got to spend a day at Enniskillen police station, where he became one of few people outside the force to be presented with a PSNI commendation medal for the bravery he showed while battling his long illness.
After the surgery, a relieved Mary said: “If I was to say thank you to Graham 1,000 times, it wouldn’t be enough, but he knows how much we appreciate what he has done.
“He has saved Joshua’s life. It is as plain and simple as that. “
For Graham (45), once his wife Nicola and sons Alexander (13) and Ethan (15) gave him their support, donating a kidney was an easy decision to make.
“I saw it in the paper. When I realised there was no match in his family and that his mum was expecting to lose him without an urgent transplant, I simply had to help Joshua,” he said.
“He was really very ill. He had just 17% kidney function and had to travel 500 miles every week from Enniskillen to Belfast for dialysis.
“Now, after the surgery, he has 91% kidney function, which is like having two fully-functioning kidneys, and he’s a healthy nine-year-old boy.
“To see him running round the police station last week happy and healthy was wonderful.”
The life-savers in the Community Rescue Service are also among our finalists for the 999 Hero award.
On call 24/7 to help the PSNI when searching for high-risk missing people, they also volunteer to patrol the River Lagan every Friday and Saturday from 11pm until 4am. This part of the service alone has seen these dedicated men and women talk to hundreds of despairing people intending to end their lives on one of the nine bridges they patrol.
The team provides comfort and support to those who need it when they are at their most vulnerable.
Known to work tirelessly across the community, their efforts were particularly apparent during their search for Belfast teenager Noah Donohoe, whose disappearance last June left all of Northern Ireland in shock.
When a person goes missing, often the first port of call for the police is the Community Rescue Service because the people who volunteer for it are experts in search and rescue.
Countless families across Northern Ireland are indebted to the work of the organisation, making it a more than worthy nomination.
Hastings Hotels said all the finalists should be enormously proud.
Marketing Director Julie Hastings added: “We are delighted to be sponsoring the 999 Hero at the Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards.
“In what has been the most challenging time for our health and emergency services, it is important that they get the recognition they deserve.
“Congratulations to all the finalists in this deserving category. You are all winners in our eyes.”