'As a young single mother I'd starve to buy shoes for my child... now I want to help others facing the same battles'
As the grand final of Miss Northern Ireland takes place tonight, Elaine Curry, the mother of 2015 winner Leanne McDowell, tells Judith Cole about her struggles as a single mother and how she's establishing a charity to help those facing similar challenges.
As a struggling single mother to her beloved daughter, Elaine Curry had no idea that she would one day use her experiences to help others.
Now, with 23-year-old Leanne already a success in her chosen field, including being crowned Miss Northern Ireland in 2015, Elaine (44), from Newtownabbey, is helping to start a charity to assist people in similar situations to her own.
She is passionate about helping others and the circumstances surrounding her decision to get involved in starting a charity are quite remarkable.
For the idea stemmed from a book just published by former Belfast Telegraph journalist and missionary John McCreedy.
Loved and Restored centres on the Bible story of Naomi, the main character in the book of Ruth. She suffered the premature loss of her husband and two sons and John delves into the story to draw modern-day lessons and encouragement for people in desperate need today.
"I was in bed for two weeks with the flu in 2016 and I read the book of Ruth a few times and really loved it," explains John, who lives in Dundonald with wife Louise and currently works as director of communications at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Whitewell.
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"At the very same time, a friend sent me a text message out of the blue and said, 'have you ever considered writing a book about the story of Ruth and Naomi?' It was amazing - and as I read more and more I wanted to write something about Naomi, who is a real modern-day hero.
"A short time after I decided to write this book I suddenly began to get requests for help from people - people who were in distress and quite desperate, many of whom were single mothers. I tried to help them as best I could but there's only so much you can do as an individual - and that's where the charity idea came to me."
And then John, who'd never met Elaine before but knew her parents through the church at Whitewell, suddenly got talking to her after a service one Sunday night.
"It blew my mind what happened next," he says. "Just after I had the idea for the charity, I met Elaine and started telling her about my book on Naomi and the charity, and she said, 'are you aware that's my field of expertise?'"
Not only has Elaine worked in the charitable sector for 23 years, and runs her own life coaching business, Elite Living Academy, but she herself struggled as a young single mother.
"I remember when my daughter, Leanne, was very young I used to drink SMA baby milk sometimes because I couldn't afford to buy milk for myself," she says. "I would starve all week to save money to buy Leanne a pair of shoes. Sometimes I had to decide whether to eat or to heat the house.
"And that's only 20 years ago. People are struggling and the pressure they are under can be hidden and horrendous."
Elaine and her three older brothers were brought up in a Christian home in Belfast, although as she got older she followed a different path that didn't include church.
"We went to church three times on a Sunday," she says. "Sunday was special, it was the Lord's Day. I had a very happy childhood - I can remember my dad polishing our shoes, making sure we were all turned out well for church.
"But I didn't follow the Christian path, I went my own."
Having her daughter at a young age was a life changing experience for Elaine.
"I was 21 and at university when I had Leanne but my relationship with her father broke down," she says. "But although I found being a single mother very hard, Leanne was my best friend growing up - we were like sisters.
"I always saw her as my purpose in life. I think single parents struggle, but my daughter and I had each other and we were going through the struggles together.
"It was very hard, I had to keep the house on my own and budget on my own - and there are so many things that might seem minor, like I helped Leanne with her driving lessons - things like this which you share with your spouse, but when you're a single parent you do them alone, and of course you only have one income coming in.
"It was tough to manage all the different expectations of what a family can provide for a child and managing all that on your own."
Elaine was fortunate to have a strong support system of family and friends - and her own determination to carve out a good life for her and her daughter is evident in that she started working as a volunteer.
"I was on benefits for a year after having Leanne and during my first few years as a new mum I continued to study in health and social care, sociology and psychology, and then I did voluntary work for six months with Age Concern in Cookstown (now called O4O - Opportunities for Older People)," she says.
"I found I was good at fundraising - and then I was given a management job.
"Helping out in the community can actually restore you as a person. Now, I always encourage people to go out and help others who are in similar situations to them, because it really does give you a boost and a sense of achievement.
"My family and friends and community were great support to me and helped me a lot. I couldn't have gone out to work if it wasn't for my mum, who looked after Leanne."
There is no doubt that Elaine, no matter what difficulties she was facing, always had a drive to succeed - inspired by her daughter. Indeed, Leanne is a tribute to her hard work ethic and determination.
"I always wanted to inspire my daughter to grow up strong, to be resilient," she affirms. "There can be stigma attached to single parents, but until you walk in someone else's shoes you can't know what their situation is. I believe that we need to reach out to people where they are - without judgment - and just try to help them."
One of the highlights of their lives has been Leanne's success in Miss Northern Ireland in 2015 - and winning the coveted crown was a childhood dream.
"One day when Leanne was eight years old she went home to her granny's after school and started to watch The Princess Diaries which gave her the dream to be a fairy princess - I think that's where it all began," Elaine laughs.
"Miss Northern Ireland is about beauty with a purpose - Leanne has been involved in charity work from an early age as I used to take her with me when I was delivering meals for Age Concern and she has had that passion to help others from a young age."
Recently, Elaine's life took a new turn when she met and fell in love with her now fiance Amine, a pilot. They were brought up in different religions and Elaine reveals that their date nights were filled with discussions of faith.
As Elaine says: "As we talked about our upbringings in our different faiths, we found that we certainly had some different beliefs about God - but also some that were similar.
"It was a challenging time - I had gone away from my Christian background but I started to read the Bible so that I could discuss my family's faith with Amine in an informed way. As I read more and more, it became clear to me that God can restore and he can heal. My faith had slipped away for a number of years but then, two years ago, God brought me back again.
"Finding my faith in God was the missing piece in my life for me, the key to contentment and happiness.
"Amine and I went to church together as he was interested in finding out more about the faith I grew up with. He wanted to know more about this 'Jesus' I spoke of and was so passionate about. Then, on March 17 this year, he became a Christian too - it was a powerful transformation. It wasn't something that I forced at all, he had started to read the Bible and God really spoke to him. Amine restored my faith in love and trust, and it was God in the background who was behind it all. He answered my prayers."
Now, Elaine, with the help of John, wants others to experience the amazing 'love and restoration' that she has.
Their charity, tentatively called The Naomi Charity, will offer an eight-week "transformational" course for single mothers in need.
Elaine says: "More than one-quarter of children born in Northern Ireland in 2017 were to a single parent household. In Belfast, 41% were born into single parent households.
"In Northern Ireland there are nearly 92,000 lone parents with 150,000 children. Single parents have higher stress involved in doing the job of two people. There can be the stigma of failure attached, but my journey has been success with my beautiful daughter Leanne.
"I identify with my own suffering and the current suffering of women in the world today with all the challenges and struggles.
"We will take a holistic approach and look at the needs of the individual, whether that's mental health, parenting, healthy eating or whatever. And as well as taking each individual on our eight-week course, we can tap into what's already out there and point people in the direction of agencies and other charities that can help. And I'm also passionate about empowering women to help themselves and other women and families."
Elaine, who has helped set up 15 charities during her career and has worked in project development, coaching and people management, has identified gaps in the charity field she hopes The Naomi Charity will fill.
And John, who worked for 10 years as a missionary in Romania, stresses that their charity will aim to meet practical needs.
"This project is an expression of our faith," he explains. "We are Christians, and the mission of our charity is to do good - but it is not to preach at people. We want to reach out to people's practical needs. We will leave the other part to their conscience. If they feel they want to join a church, that's entirely up to them.
"Over the years I have observed that the things we have suffered in this province have caused mental illness, broken marriages and other difficulties because of the pressure - the point is, who is going to take up the mantle and reach out and help those in need?
"I know there are fantastic organisations out there who are doing a fantastic job, and they challenge me as a Christian to get off my backside and do something.
"And it shows you the great spirit of the people in Northern Ireland that following the collapse of Stormont so many groups are doing work that the Assembly should be doing, but aren't allowed to because of the impasse. Right across the whole community there are fantastic people working to help others, and they have inspired me to do this."
Any new project needs funds, and Elaine and John estimate that they will need around £500,000 for the first three years. This will help implement the eight-week coaching programme, through which people will receive one-to-one mentoring as well as online help, and will also finance premises, staff and other resources.
And they hope that, like Naomi on whom John's book is based, they will soon see women's lives transformed.
"It has been said that if you heal a woman you heal her family and the world," Elaine says. "With our charity we want to be the trusted voice in the community with a vision for women transforming their lives and passing on what they learn through our programme to their families.
"It's a challenge but I am so passionate about it and look forward to seeing what we can do."
And John is keen to stress that while the charity is essentially designed to help women, there is a message of hope in his book for everyone.
"The aim of the book was to speak to people who want to be restored, whoever they are - men and women. People who have lost out, who have lost their job, their marriage, their self-esteem," he adds.
"We are living in days when people are taking the other option, suicide, but I believe there is a plan for everybody's life. They need to know that they are not alone, they're not the first person to experience what they're going through. Naomi lost so much - her husband and two sons, her culture and her identity, and she was an outcast in terms of her religion yet she came back to God and is so wonderfully restored. It is one of the greatest stories of restoration in the Bible. That is still possible today."
Loved and Restored, by John McCreedy, published by Ambassador International, £9.99, is available to buy at amazon.co.uk, via John's website at johnmccreedy.co.uk and in bookshops. For more information about The Naomi Charity contact John by emailing John.email@example.com or Elaine at firstname.lastname@example.org. John is available to speak at churches about his book - email him if interested