How former Celtic striker John Hartson helped raise £50,000 in memory of Linfield fan who died from a brain tumour
Lorraine Burns, from Belfast, tells Stephanie Bell about host of sports stars who supported gala night held in honour of her late husband, Alan
It was a night which would have been a dream comes true for Lorraine Burns' sports-mad husband Alan as many of his heroes took to the stage to help raise money in his memory for brain cancer research.
Indeed, just how much her husband would have loved it was a thought which pulled at Lorraine's heartstrings many times during the evening, which proved a fitting tribute to Alan.
When Lorraine lost Alan to brain cancer in May 2013, she wanted to do something to show her appreciation of the wonderful support her family had received from the charity Brainwaves NI. In the end, she decided to organise the ball and set an ambitious target of £20,000.
As her colleagues at the Halifax enthusiastically came on board to help, the event took on a life of its own and the result was a star-studded night which raised a few thousand more than the original target for research into the condition at Queen's University, Belfast's centre for cancer research and cell biology.
Her employers, Lloyds Bank Foundation, also embraced her efforts and through their Matched Giving Programme doubled what was raised, enabling Lorraine to hand over around £50,000 to Kate Ferguson, head of local charity Brainwaves NI.
Despite being the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under 40 in the UK, research into brain tumours receives less than 1% of national cancer spending.
Lorraine, who is customer manager at the Halifax in Connswater Shopping Centre in east Belfast, staged her gala fund-raising event in September.
Alan was a devoted Linfield supporter and acted as a steward at Windsor Park even when his health failed. The team did him proud on the night with former Linfield manager David Jeffrey and club legends Glenn Ferguson, Lee Doherty and many others supporting it.
A motorcycle enthusiast, one of Alan's heroes, Phillip McCallen, also came along to the Ramada.
Welsh international footballer John Hartson, who famously survived having a brain tumour, also made the journey to Belfast to attend the event and help raise funds.
John, who was a striker for Arsenal, West Ham and Celtic, and won 51 international caps for Wales, had testicular cancer which spread to his lungs and brain. He had two brain operations.
Local TV personalities, including Pamela Ballantine and Adrian Logan, also attended and the night was hosted by sports presenter Stephen Watson.
"Alan would have been in his glory and he would have been so proud of what we achieved. I had never been to a gala ball in my life and just thought it would be a nice thing to do but had no idea what work was involved," says Lorraine.
"When I told my colleagues in work they adopted Brainwaves as their charity of the year and people from throughout the company got involved in fundraising and helping organise the event.
"The idea really took off and we had 400 people at the event in the Ramada, who told us it was their biggest charity event of the year.
"The whole night was a tribute to Alan. All the sports people who attended were brilliant.
"In fact, I'd no idea that John Hartson was going to be there - it was a surprise - and he spoke brilliantly about his cancer journey and how it affects families. It really was a tribute to Alan and all he cared for.
"He had his faith, which was first and foremost in his life, and then his family and friends and then he loved his sport."
Alan was just 46 when he lost a long battle with brain cancer in May 2013.
He was first diagnosed with an inoperable tumour in 2004 and given between 10 and 15 years. At the time his concern was to survive long enough to see his children Matthew (23), Josh (15) and Nathan (13) through their school years.
He and Lorraine both have strong faith, which she says helped them deal with Alan's diagnosis and illness.
Their ordeal began when Alan started to take mild nocturnal fits, but because they were happening only once a month at first neither he nor Lorraine was overly concerned.
However, when after 10 months they were still happening, Alan went to his GP who organised for him to have scans done.
The couple were horrified when the scans showed that he had a tumour so deeply buried in his brain that it could not be operated on.
"Alan was very positive about the prognosis," says Lorraine. "He just said he hoped he would get 15 years to see the boys through school, but he got 10 years.
"He was a rock to me throughout it all. He never complained or asked 'Why me?', he just accepted it as it was. He also befriended other families going through brain cancer. There was one wee girl whom he visited a lot and was a great support for, but sadly she died.
"Looking back, Alan was such an amazing person."
It wasn't until his last year when the illness really started to impact on him that the family faced the reality that his days were numbered.
Alan suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2010. Shortly afterwards, he began chemotherapy which he continued for the next two years.
He loved going on holidays with his family and, in June 2012, fully aware that his predicament was worsening, he and Lorraine booked a last trip away to Spain with the boys.
In October, their worst fears were confirmed when Alan was told the chemo was not working and his condition began to deteriorate.
Alan lost his mobility and for some months before he died was housebound.
Lorraine insisted on keeping him at home and nursing him herself with the help of carers.
"His illness wasn't visible before then, but when it started to affect Alan that's when it really hit me. Up until then it was all a bit surreal," she says.
"Suddenly he wasn't the strong man he was when I married him. We both remained resolute for the boys because we didn't want them to see us falling apart but it was horrendous. Alan needed a lot of care and eventually his speech went as well."
Lorraine added: "It is my belief that God called him home and God has given me the strength to get on with things.
"I spent the summer with the boys and it was difficult, but it was also a relief to know that Alan was no longer in pain."
Lorraine found that keeping busy was the best way to cope with her enduring grief. "I found that it was easier that way," she says. And, naturally, when she had the idea for the charity ball, focusing on that was another welcome distraction - as well as incredibly time-consuming. " I decided in January to do the ball and for the nine months getting it organised was a full-on job."
Perhaps inevitably, too, it was only when all that work ended, that the full impact of her husband's death really hit her.
"I think when it was over in September I crash-landed. It was only after the ball that the grief kicked in," says Lorraine.
For the sake of their sons, however, she knows she must keep going. "The boys are coping well," says Lorraine. "We kept them informed every step of the way and talked to them and prayed with them and we were upfront with them so that they knew what was happening.
"They saw what their daddy was going through and I think in the end they didn't want to see him like that any more.
"Alan's biggest regret was leaving me and the boys. He told me that he was ready to go home; he knew where he was going because of his faith.
"He was a strong man and very family-orientated, as well as loving his sport and his football. He was a big Linfield supporter and steward and continued to do it even through his illness."
The support of Brainwaves proved invaluable to the family during that last year as Alan's condition deteriorated.
The charity is the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland and Lorraine feels so indebted to them for their help that she wanted to do something to say thank you. She is also horrified at how little funding goes into brain cancer research, even though it is now the biggest cancer killer in people under 40 in the UK.
Every penny of the £50,000-plus she has raised will go into research right here in Northern Ireland. "The charity supported us emotionally; they were always there for us," she says.
"I think the lack of spending on brain tumour research is criminal and we need better understanding of the disease and to develop treatments for it.
"Hopefully if people keep supporting it the government will realise how prevalent it is and will start to put more money in too. It's too late for Alan, but maybe it can help others."
How scheme doubles the money...
Kate Ferguson, of Brainwaves NI, described Lorraine's efforts as "absolutely wonderful".
"This incredible amount will help support other families that have been going through the same difficult situation she experienced with the loss of her husband. We have been fundraising for the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology for the last four years," she says.
The Halifax is owned by Lloyds Bank, which operates the Matched Giving Scheme through its foundation to encourage involvement in the voluntary sector through personal participation in fundraising or volunteering.
Every member of staff employed by Lloyds Banking Group and any subsidiary is entitled to claim matched funding from the foundation for every pound raised or every hour volunteered.
Sandara Kelso-Robb, executive director of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for Northern Ireland, says: "Matched giving enables the foundation to acknowledge the work of staff throughout Lloyds Banking Group in Northern Ireland in their fundraising and volunteering endeavours. I'm delighted that Brainwaves NI has been one of many local charities that have been able to benefit from this initiative."
Janine Donnelly, local director of Halifax and trustee for Lloyds Bank Foundation for Northern Ireland, says: "I am delighted colleagues took advantage of the Matched Giving Scheme operated by the Lloyds Bank Foundation for Northern Ireland. It is great to see their efforts being recognised in this way. This is one of the many community projects supported within Lloyds Banking Group in Northern Ireland."
Foundation raises awareness
Lloyds Bank Foundation for Northern Ireland, formerly known as the Lloyds TSB Foundation for Northern Ireland, was established in 1986 as one of four independent charitable trusts by the then TSB Group
The foundations receive 0.5% of the bank's pre-tax profits averaged over three years for distribution. The Foundation for Northern Ireland receives 5.35% of this amount
As a registered charity, Brainwaves NI has been providing a range of services for those affected by a brain tumour since 1994
It works with health professionals in raising awareness, provides information and support to people and their families and also helps fund research at the local Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen's University, Belfast
For further details go to www.brainwaves-ni.org