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'My mother-in-law was driven in getting her children a good education ... she was a great influence on the entire family'

How helping others is the greatest legacy of our loved ones

Charity support: John Crawford, son Jasper and wife Alison at the remembrance tree in Lisburn
Charity support: John Crawford, son Jasper and wife Alison at the remembrance tree in Lisburn
Family man: Rotary Club Lisburn member John Crawford with his son Jasper

It may well be the most wonderful time of the year for many people, but for others the New Year is a period when they feel the absence of loved ones more keenly than ever. Whether it's bereavement or the physical separation of thousands of miles, bittersweet memories are an unavoidable reality at this time of the year. However, a project run by the charity Rotary Ireland has given people a chance to remember those who are special to them and, at the same time, raise much-needed funds for local and international charities.

Rotary's Tree of Remembrance has seen 32 trees erected in cities, towns and villages across Northern Ireland and the Republic - nine of them here.

Shoppers have been able to remember their loved ones with a message, tied to the tree with a ribbon, in a simple and poignant acknowledgment that they are missed. Since the project began 16 years ago, more than £3m has been raised for causes ranging from local hospices and homeless shelters to charities for children in Africa and to help people living with Alzheimer's or the effects of stroke.

Members of the Rotary Club of Lisburn have chosen three charities to benefit from their tree this year, which has been erected in the local Tesco store. They are the Atlas Centre, Lisburn, which is expanding all the time and provides a range of services for adult training and support, as well as Autism NI and the Alzheimer's Society NI.

Both club president Johnny Simpson and John Crawford, chairperson of the community committee, have added their own personal messages to the tree, in memory of people dear to them.

And while the act of remembering can be difficult, both men are enthusiastic and optimistic about the future and the difference that money raised by Rotary's remembrance tree and other projects can make to the lives of people in their community.

Garth Arnold, public image chair of Rotary Ireland, said the Trees of Remembrance is one of its most successful projects and "is a lovely way to remember those no longer with us at this festive time of year".

He adds: "Later we collect all notes and a short prayer is said in remembrance of the persons writing the notes and their loved ones mentioned."

'Losing our baby was heartbreaking but the support we received from the hospital and charities was superb'

With five children aged from five months to 15 years, the Crawford household has been a riot of noise, excitement and acres of wrapping paper this Christmas.

As one of five children himself, dad John takes it all in his stride and admits he loves this time of year.

John is chairperson of Lisburn Rotary Club's community committee and has been responsible for organising the remembrance tree.

Last week the 47-year-old hung two messages of his own on it - one for his father who died when he was just six years old and one for his daughter Faith who was stillborn at 23 weeks.

"I think the tree of remembrance is a chance to take a bit of time for reflection, something you wouldn't do in the course of everyday life," he says.

John lost his dad George 40 years ago.

"It was very sudden. He was in his early 60s and he went to bed and just didn't wake up one morning," he says.

"But we had quite an extended family and a lot of friends who looked after me and I felt very supported.

"I don't have many memories of dad. I do remember visiting family with him. He was from a fairly large family too and my mum Rosemary continued that tradition of close family ties."

Five years ago, John and his wife Alison were given the heartbreaking news that the baby they were expecting - they named her Faith - had a foetal abnormality and would not survive beyond birth.

"The consultant said he didn't expect Faith to go full-term. Alison was having regular check-ups and it was at one of those we were told there was no heartbeat," says John.

"It was a very difficult time but the Ulster Hospital and Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society (SANDS) were superb and very supportive.

"A lot of people don't like to mention the death of a baby or child, and at times like that it is good to have organisations like SANDS to talk to."

In fact, John would like to support SANDS as one of the Rotary charities in 2019 to enable parents and families to access the same help he and his wife did.

He is also passionate about helping some of the smaller groups in the local area and raising the profile of Rotary.

"We can respond more quickly than some of the larger charities can. For instance, there was a group, Tandems for the Blind, and they needed some repairs done to their bikes so we were able to sort that out very quickly for them," he says.

"Next year, I would also like us to be more visible within the community, so people know what we are doing. The more people know, the more interested they are and the more they help.

"Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council has given us permission to plant a large area with purple crocuses as part of the Rotary project to eradicate polio worldwide, so that's one of the projects we will be working on."

Meanwhile, on the tree at home the Crawford siblings - Jack, Lucy, Camilla, Jemima and Jasper - all have personalised baubles, and sparkling among them is another, inscribed with the name Faith.

'My mother-in-law was driven in getting her children a good education ... she was a great influence on the entire family'

While all the charities being supported by this year's Tree of Remembrance are special to Johnny Simpson, president of the Rotary Club of Lisburn, two have a personal resonance.

Last week Johnny, his wife Maureen and sons Daniel (19) and Ethan (11) attached a heartfelt message to remember a much-loved mother, mother-in-law and grandmother who had played a major part in all their lives.

Teresa Short was 87 when she passed away on July 4 last year, having suffered from dementia.

She was very close to all the family and had lived with them for a number of years, until ill health made it impossible.

But she and Ethan, who is autistic, were particularly close, so it seems fitting that two of the charities which will be helped by the tree fundraising are Autism NI and Alzheimer's Society NI.

Johnny says: "Teresa was a great influence on all of us and as a son-in-law I had a very good relationship with her.

"She lived with us full-time for about five years - in fact, we still have a room called the Teresa Suite - and it was a hard decision when she had to go into nursing care for the final two years of her life.

"She suffered from dementia and she got to the point where she couldn't do anything for herself. But she still remembered everybody, and she remembered faces which was a kind of blessing.

"To see someone lose their independence completely is very hard. We wanted her to live with us as long as possible."

He continues: "She came with us on lots of family holidays and to countries including America, Canada and France. She was quite a wise woman and she always gave us good advice.

"She was very pro-education. She had to leave school when she was 14 so she was very driven in making sure her children had a good education and went to university.

"She had a huge influence on our children, even doing practical things like putting them over their spellings, and she would have been one of the main babysitters for our oldest son.

"But she didn't go looking for confrontation and that made it easy for us to all live together.

"My grandmother lived with me all my life and to me it was important that the boys had a close relationship with both their grandmothers. My mum, Antoinette Simpson, spent Christmas with us."

Johnny was one of the Rotary members who took turns to 'man' the tree and he was struck not only by the messages of remembrance that were left but also by the many members of the public who simply wanted to donate money.

"People who came to the tree were remembering not just people who had died but those who were ill or people on the other side of the world," he says.

"Sometimes people's emotions are quite raw.

"There was one lady who came to put a message on and she had lost her sister quite recently and had a very close bond with her.

"And there were others remembering young people who had died. I think keeping memories alive is very important and focusing on the difference that person made within their life."

He adds: "A lot of people I spoke to were very aware of the work of our other charity, the Atlas Centre, which is right here in Lisburn.

"It's a fantastic organisation which has added activities like crafts, yoga and mental health awareness to its existing classes.

"It's a charity we would very much want to support going forward."

The three charities have also benefited from a major golf day and other initiatives while an already sold out Burns Night in January will help fund a project to treat glaucoma and prevent blindness in the Masai tribe in Kenya.

For further information on the work of Rotary visit www.rotary-ribi.org

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