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Celebrating the unsung heroes who help make life much better


Claire Robinson, principal of St Luke's Primary School in Belfast, with pupils Caithlin McCorley, Caoimhe Doherty, Connell Toner and Liam McIlwaine

Claire Robinson, principal of St Luke's Primary School in Belfast, with pupils Caithlin McCorley, Caoimhe Doherty, Connell Toner and Liam McIlwaine

Claire Robinson, principal of St Luke's Primary School in Belfast, with pupils Caithlin McCorley, Caoimhe Doherty, Connell Toner and Liam McIlwaine

Do you know an ordinary person who has done extraordinary things? The Belfast Telegraph recently launched its annual Making The Difference awards.

And today we announce our second round of nominations for people, organisations and communities who have gone the extra mile to help those around them. These are stories of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things and deserve recognition.

They include the inspirational stories of 70-year-old volunteer Marie Gordon, who has helped patients at the Northern Ireland Hospice for the last 27 years.

And Thomas Orr (27), who saved the lives of his sister and her young family during a devastating house fire last year.

Every year through our Making The Difference awards, we search for Northern Ireland’s individuals, projects and businesses that inspire us and make a positive impact on daily lives.

We want to shine a spotlight on people in communities across the province who deserve to be honoured for making the lives of ordinary people better.

There are 11 categories, including Best School, Spirit of Youth and Carer in the Community.

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After all the nominations have been received, three finalists will be chosen from each category and a winner selected by our judging panel.

All finalists will be invited to a gala night in the Grand Opera House on March 1, 2013, when the overall winners will be announced.

Since the awards launch in November, nominations have been pouring in. But we still need your help.

Do you know a remarkable young person who has achieved remarkable success? Or a neighbour who works tirelessly for the people around them?

Nominations can be made by anyone who knows a person, project, business or a even a street they believe worthy of an award.

Best garden

This exquisite Cultra garden was a decade in the planning after years of research and sourcing Victorian-era flowers and foliage by husband and wife designers Rodney and Pat Miller.

But just three months after it was completed in 2010, Rodney lost his battle with cancer.

Pat explained: “Rodney only lived for three months after his diagnosis. Those three months he spent in the garden. We had lovely weather in those three months and we loved spending our time outside.

“Even at that stage, it did not feel like a newly-planted garden. It felt far more natural.”

Pat is preparing to move out of the beautiful Victorian home in Holywood they shared. But it is the garden that she will be saddest to leave.

The elaborate oasis is a dedication to Rodney, who was committed to its creation.

The sprawling expanse brings together a woodland, a secret garden, wildflower meadow, Victorian rosebed, Italian garden and pond area

In August, hundreds of people travelled to the Holywood home to see the garden for a Ulster Gardens Scheme open day.

“The only reason I opened the garden for that day was because Rodney was so proud of it,” Pat said. “He spent all his time in the garden. He wanted to show it and share it.”

Best volunteer

Marie Gordon welcomed the first patient through the doors of the Northern Ireland Adult Hospice when the facility opened 30 years ago.

The 70-year-old mother-of-four from Glengormley was involved in the fundraising campaign to establish the hospice at its former base in Belfast’s Somerton House.

For the last 27 years she has volunteered at the hospice and continues to fundraise for the vital facility.

Luighseach McCann, the hospice’s volunteer services co-ordinator, nominated Marie.

She said: “Throughout the years, Marie has been involved in caring for both patients and their families on the inpatient unit. She carries out her Wednesday night shift without hesitation or regret, but with passion and pride.”

Marie’s colleague Esther Fyffe said: “I count it as a privilege to have worked with Marie and have witnessed her dedication and love for all the patients at NI Hospice.”

Luighseach said Marie’s enthusiasm gives hope to the hospice’s patients and their families.

“She is a dedicated and committed volunteer. On many occasions Marie would bring in little treats to add to the patients’ supper in the evening, such as cakes and sweets, something tempting to encourage their appetite.

“She has a kind, warm nature, she’s a good listener and is someone you could talk to and trust.”

Best carer

Elizabeth Joyce Doherty was a sister on Altnagelvin Hospital’s gynaecological ward for 27 years until her retirement last year.

The 58-year-old, who worked as a nurse for 38 years, has been an innovator in her field.

The Donegal woman, known as Joy, was one of the founding members of the Northern Ireland Gynaecological Nurses Association. Thirteen years ago the group set up the annual NI Gynaecological Nurse Study Day, where nurses from across Ulster hear about the latest procedures in the field of gynaecological treatment.

Joy sees the staff in her former ward, who she describes as her “children”, every few weeks.

She said: “Even though I was based in an acute ward, because of the recurring nature of (gynaecological) conditions we see people again and again. And you build up a rapport.

“We had a very friendly community. I have met so many wonderful people on the ward.”

She added: “When I retired, someone said to me: ‘You were well-named Joy because you put your job first, others next and you put yourself last’. I thought it was a lovely compliment.”

Spirit of youth

Eoin Taylor is an inspiration to us all. The 15-year-old gathered 125,000 signatures during his online campaign for the retention of under-threat paediatric cardiac surgery services at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital.

The schoolboy — who underwent life-saving heart surgery in the Royal days after he was born — met Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Edwin Poots last year to present the petition and make the case for saving the vital facility.

His mother Marie nominated him.

She explained: “When he heard the news last year he said ‘they saved my life and how many others? We cannot let people do this. People are going to die’.

“I was on Facebook that evening and I received an invite to a page with a petition to keep the facility.

“I thought, ‘who set that up?’.

“It was Eoin.

“Eoin is a wee thinker. He thinks about everything.”

She added: “It got to the stage where it was hundreds of signatures, then thousands.

“Then we thought, we are going to have to really do something with this.

“When I told Eoin about the (Making The Difference) nomination, in true Eoin fashion he said: ‘If I win anything mammy, it will be for all the heart warriors out there’.”

Service with a smile

Martin McCrossan (50) founded Derry City Tours when tourism was not a popular sector in his native city.

Over more than 20 years he has showcased the walled city’s attractions to hundreds of tourists.

His business is now thriving, and the first port of call for travellers visting the city.

Martin’s wife Sharon, who nominated him for the Making The Difference awards, said: “Martin started a tourism business in the city over 20 years ago, in what were very difficult times of civil unrest and troubles. When the business started there was certainly no rush of visitors. But he has now brought people to this city from all over the world and has built the business into what is one of the most successful independently-owned tourism ventures in Ireland.

“The business continues to go from strength to strength and he puts a smile on the faces of all who do his tour,” she added. “As a result of his involvement in tourism and promotion, many other organisations have benefited.”

Best street

Neighbours in Twinbrook’s Glasvey Court showed their spirit when pensioners were forced from their homes in June’s flash floods.

The west Belfast estate was a hive of activity on June 28, hours after heavy rains had swept through their neighbours’ bungalows, destroying carpets, furniture and treasured personal possessions.

Young and old helped distressed pensioners and residents — who were facing thousands of pounds of damage they could ill-afford.

The clean-up operation went on for weeks.

Neighbours and school children made tea and hot food for stranded residents, while others helped them clean up their swamped properties or seek temporary financial assistance and accommodation.

The 50-strong effort cemented the tight-knit community, local community worker Annie Armstrong said.

Annie, who has nominated the street for the Belfast Telegraph’s Making The Difference awards, said: “There was a great community spirit about the place and it helped to strengthen the community we have here even further.”

Best school

Last summer was not much of a break for staff at St Luke’s Primary School in west Belfast. Flash floods in June caused thousands of pounds of damage.

Classrooms, corridors, toilets and offices in the Twinbrook primary school were all destroyed.

Days after they broke for their summer holidays, staff returned to the school to start the extensive clean-up. All summer they cleared out and painted swamped classrooms, moved furniture and compiled an inventory of the damage.

Northern Ireland’s Education Minister John O’Dowd commended the staff’s efforts during a visit to the school last year. Chairwoman of the school’s board of governors, Andrea Adams (43), who made the nomination, said: “I just think it was exceptional how they pulled all the stops out to make sure the kids got back to a good, fresh school, instead of temporary classrooms.

“They all pulled together and gave up everything they were doing to work from morning to night on the school.”

Principal Claire Robinson said it was wonderful to see the relief of pupils and parents at the beginning of the new school year.

She said: “Every member of the school staff rolled up their sleeves, donned wellies and showed the determination to put their school back on its feet. This involved the whole school, from the principal to the secretary, the teachers to teaching assistants, cleaners to the caretaker, doing jobs not in their job descriptions.

“Thanks to the SEELB (South Eastern Education and Library Board), led by Derek Montgomery, the staff of WJM Building Contractors and Anchor flooring, we all worked together to make sure our children had a beautiful, clean learning environment, of which we are so proud.”

Best neighbour

Inspiration: Georgina Dickson

Georgina Dickson is a well-known figure in her adopted Ballynahinch, Co Down. The Cregagh woman — who recently received an OBE in the New Year Honours list — still collects in her area for charities.

But it is for her dedication to neighbours and friends that the 89-year-old is best known.

Still driving — having first obtained her licence aged 50 — Georgina transports neighbours and friends to hospital appointments.

The grandmother-of-three also goes door-to-door in Ballynahinch collecting donations for Christian Aid, an organisation she has fundraised for for 20 years.

Georgina’s granddaughter Bronwen Kearney (34) made the nomination.

She said: “Nanny turns 90 in a few weeks and still visits friends (most of who are younger than her) in residential and nursing homes and also when they are in hospital or house bound. She sometimes brings them meals.

“She is still driving and often takes friends to their hospital appointments.”

She added: “She is someone who has always put others before herself and continues to do so every day, even when she is heading into her tenth decade of life.

“She has a positive and gracious attitude, no matter what she is going through, and is an inspiration to spend time with.”

Best business

Graeme Finegan founded Grounded Espresso bars back in 2006. With a number of outlets across Northern Ireland — including one at the foot of Slieve Gullion mountain — the business has gained recognition from The Chartered Institute of Marketing and earned a series of Great Taste awards.

The company has spearheaded initiatives in Newry, including ‘shop local’ and fair-trade campaigns, while working closely with local schools and Young Enterprise Northern Ireland.

But the business also has a strong community-focused ethos.

Alongside PIPS (Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-harm), the cafe runs a campaign called ‘Prevent Suicide; Speak Up — Reach Out!’.

Graeme established the project following the loss of close friends to suicide.

“Each day we sell a lot of coffees, and I thought that these cups could be that ‘signpost' for people who may have been affected by suicide, or for those who feel suicidal... and people might see it and take action,” he said. “Our cups are green, a colour associated with reassurance, and it immediately stands out with the easy-to-read message.

“On the back of the cup is a short piece of writing... The same poem is on my friend Liam's memorial card and it is perfect as it hopefully will inspire those who may feel at times in despair.”

He added: “For us, business doesn’t have to always be about money and finance.

“But it does always have to be about community.

999 hero

Amie Alexander (23) is confident her young family would not be here today were it not for her brother, Thomas Orr (27).

Early on April 6 last the young mother woke to his frantic calls.

Thomas had fallen asleep on the sofa of his sister’s Clonbeg Drive home in Rathcoole, Belfast. He awoke to an enveloping fire.

Escaping through a downstairs window, he directed Amie, her partner and two young children to their upstairs bathroom.

Amie explained: “We had covered our mouths with towels in the bathroom and we could not see for the black smoke. We could feel the heat from the fire through the door.”

Thomas urged Amie to drop her baby Hollie into his arms.

“I could hear Thomas shouting ‘drop her, drop her’ but I could not see him through the smoke,” Amie said. “I let out a big scream and let her go. I heard a crack and thought it was my daughter hitting the ground. But it was my brother banging his head against the wall as he dived to catch her.

“If he had not been there that night, there would have been four coffins coming out of the house.

“He caught my daughter while on the phone to the Fire Service. He was fantastic. He was so brave and it came natural to him. He knew he had to get us out.”

Best art/sport/community project

Rob Stewart (46), assistant coach with the Belfast Giants, has a busy schedule. He brings together kids from across Belfast and the island of Ireland under Junior Belfast Giants’ development programme.

Chris Scott, under-16 manager with the Junior Belfast Giants, who nominated Rob, said: “Despite his busy schedule on the road with the Giants, Rob manages to attend training sessions without fail. He is hands-on with children from five years upwards, knows every single child’s ability and works with them to move them on to the next stage.

“He was also instrumental in setting up a structure within the last year allowing players to progress to a senior level. Those with potential can now be scouted by the Giants and developed.”

Through Rob’s innovation, ice hockey, once an under-developed sport in Northern Ireland, has become a major attraction for children, Chris added.

“As a result of the structures here children had no one to play against, which greatly inhibited their development,” he said.

“Rob was instrumental in facilitating teams from all age groups entering in the Scottish League this season. He is a quiet and modest individual (who) always puts the kids first and foremost.”

The categories

Best Street: We want to find the street where there is an amazing sense of community pride and is shown through activities such as clean-ups, street parties or activities which involve everyone who lives there.

Best School: A school that has an ‘outreach’ project which involves pupils going into the community to spruce up gardens, raise money for local causes or has gone ‘green’ within the school.

Best Volunteer: Someone who has worked tirelessly for a charity or in the voluntary sector for many years or has proven to go above and beyond their role.

Best Neighbour: A person considered to be the ‘heart’ of the street. They look after other neighbours, either by running errands, giving lifts or are just always there to help and listen.

Best Enterprise: This business takes charity fundraising seriously. It has either done something for the environment or ‘gives back’ to the local community through school programmes.

999 Hero: Someone who, throughan amazing act of bravery, has saved a life. They can be either a member of the public or emergency services personnel.

Best Art/Sport/Community Project: We are looking for the artist who runs classes for underprivileged children or the elderly, or the sports coach who teaches football to young people — someone who helps give groups fresh purpose.

Service with a Smile: This is the ambulance driver, shop owner, home help, or meals on wheels worker who gives their all to their job and to the people they help.

Spirit of Youth: This is for a bright spark who has demonstrated great achievements at a young age. Either they have joined an orchestra at 15, or achieved great academic, sporting or artistic heights.

Best Garden: This ‘oasis’ does not need to be acres of landscaped beauty — but it could be the little urban garden that brightens up a street, or a small back garden which is a hidden gem.

Carer in the Community: We want to find an amazing person who has dedicated their time to looking after someone in their own home.

Making The Difference Award: The overall honour awarded to the outstanding individual, organisation or project that has made a huge contribution to the community.

How to get involved

Nominations can be made by anyone who knows a person, project, business or even a street they believe worthy of an award.

The public can enter in two ways: write a nomination in no more than 200 words clearly stating the category and contact details of nominator and nominee and send to Making The Difference Awards, Belfast Telegraph 124-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1EB. Alternatively, email your nomination to: makingthedifference@belfasttelegraph.co.uk.