Belfast Telegraph

Heralding unsung heroes who make such huge impact on the lives they touch

Fun and frolics: NI ClownDoctors visit thousands of sick children every year
Fun and frolics: NI ClownDoctors visit thousands of sick children every year

By Victoria O'Hara

Time is running out to recognise the unsung heroes across Northern Ireland. Hundreds of inspirational people and projects have been nominated for the Belfast Telegraph Making the Difference Awards — supported by Tesco.

But we know there are many more people who go above and beyond the call of duty to improve the lives of others.

Readers have until February 22, 2012 to put forward the name of the person, group or business in one of 11 categories, from Spirit Of Youth to Best Carer.

Since the launch last October, the awards have touched a chord with communities across the province with amazing and humbling nominations.

They reveal how volunteers, carers and even streets have a positive impact and are making the difference to daily lives.

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 glittering gala night in the Grand Opera House on March 23, 2012, when the overall winners will be announced.

Among those in contention is Hazel McFarlane from Lisburn, who has been nominated for Best Carer.

The 34-year-old cares for her husband Gordy who is battling cancer.

“Hazel cares, without regard for herself, and I would love to see her get the recognition she richly deserves for being a remarkable young woman,” her nomination said.

Joe Bourke (40) from Bangor has been nominated for Best Volunteer.

“He is a superb role model who uses his knowledge and skills as someone with a visual impairment to help others to overcome the difficulties he has experienced,” his nomination said.

And a contender for Best Project is the NI ClownDoctors. Every year the team visit more than 4,000 children in hospitals and hospices to put smiles on their faces.

A hospital play specialist at Altnagelvin Hospital in Co Londonderry said: “It changes the atmosphere on the ward to quiet laughter and singing... a great distraction for both parents and staff.”

The inaugural awards last year discovered 11 uplifting and humbling winners.

Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson said the stories uncovered were “overwhelming”.

He said: “They were truly inspirational and it is fair to say the majority of the people featured had never been heralded in a newspaper before.”

Caoimhe Mannion, marketing manager for Tesco, said: “Tesco is delighted to be able to support this special celebration recognising local unsung heroes.”

Best business

It is a bank that helps by investing something back into the community.

As part of its commitment to corporate responsibility and involvement with Business in the Community, the Ulster Bank gives every employee one day a year to volunteer in challenges across Northern Ireland.

Among its many projects, it has helped to transform schoolgrounds throughout the province into attractive, stimulating play areas.

Principal of Ashgrove Nursery School Joanne Barr nominated the bank after teams of volunteers helped transform the outside play space in Newtownabbey.

“Our outdoor area needed a complete revamping,” she said.

“The teams came in and worked in terrible weather, but were all so enthusiastic.

“Budgets are really squeezed, so their efforts have really made a difference to us. I cannot praise the teams of volunteers from the Ulster Bank enough.

“It was good to see the faces of the people who you would usually see behind a desk making a real difference in the community.

“I am absolutely thrilled with what they have accomplished. We certainly could not have achieved this on our own.

“The support of businesses such as Ulster Bank is invaluable — it deserves to be recognised.”

Spirit of youth

She has won medal after medal and her stunning sporting ability has resulted in her becoming a strong Olympic hopeful for 2012.

Sycerika McMahon from Portaferry is just 16 years old, but is the holder of 15 Irish junior and three senior records.

Her outstanding performances resulted in a double gold and silver medals in the European junior swimming championships in Belgrade, and she was a semi-finalist in the world championships in Shanghai last year.

She trains at least five days a week, starting at 4.30am when her mother Mary drives her to a swimming pool at Castlereagh in Belfast for a two-hour training session with her Leander Club coaches Bobby Madine and Kathryn Wylie.

Joe Boyle, who nominated Sycerika, said: “Whilst not setting out to become a role model, but rather to do her best within competitive swimming, Sycerika has been an inspiration to so many young people.

“She has clearly demonstrated, in what are very difficult circumstances for young people, that if you have self-belief, determination and commitment you can achieve your goals in life, and you should always adopt this positive and hopeful approach.”

Service with a smile

Rachel Davison is a “gem in the heart” of east Belfast. The manager at the Walkway Community Centre is involved in numerous projects across the city helping to boost community spirit.

And it is her positive attitude, drive and dedication to help transform her local environment that have led to her being nominated.

Gavin Robinson, from east Belfast, explained: “Programmes for the young, those out of work, the old or young at heart have developed into a truly tangible community spirit and Rachel is always front and centre.

“We've all heard of a typical 9-5 working day, and while many people prefer to switch off at some point, Rachel simply changes tack.”

Among the many projects and community programmes she is involved in is the ‘Street By Street’ initiative.

“It provides a personal presence, interacting and engaging with young people who may otherwise become responsible for or accused of anti-social behaviour,” Gavin added.

“Perhaps, most importantly, no matter how busy things are at Walkway, I am always welcomed with a smile and a nice cup of tea!”

999 hero

The lives of one Lisburn mum and her toddler were saved because of the actions of their heroic dog.

Caroline Wilson was left petrified after waking up in her home just before Christmas surrounded by clouds of thick, black smoke.

It is believed that a piece of coal had fallen from the fire onto the carpet in the living room, igniting the blaze. Meanwhile the 19-year-old and her two-year-old son had fallen asleep.

There was a working smoke alarm, however, as the battery needed replacing, it was not loud enough to waken the mother and child. But thanks to the barks and nudges of Buster she woke up, averting a tragedy.

“I was in a really deep sleep when Buster came into the room and started to nudge and lick me,” she said.

The two-and-a-half-year-old half-Collie, half-Rottweiler remained in the bedroom and continued to bark until Caroline had reached Lucas.

“If it wasn’t for Buster, Lucas and I wouldn’t be here and my family would have been burying me before Christmas.

“I’ve had him for about two-and-a-half years and he is just described as a ‘big lump of a thing’.

“But he really is clever — I just had no idea how much.”

Best carer

Hazel McFarlane has resilience and stamina and is simply remarkable.

For the last year she has cared for her husband Gordy (42) after being told the devastating news he had bowel cancer.

After the couple — who have been together for four years — realised Gordy would not get better, they married in a “small but beautiful” ceremony in Scotland on August 27.

The 34-year-old — who cares for her husband full-time — has described the last 12 months as “tough”, but Beverly Craig, carer co-ordinator with the Northern Ireland Hospice, who nominated Hazel, said: “In a nutshell, Hazel is remarkable.

“Hazel cares, without regard for herself, and I would love to see her get the recognition she richly deserves for being a remarkable young woman.”

Best garden

The whole community in Cloughmills, Co Antrim, both young and old, benefit from this wonderful garden.

Known as the ‘Incredible Edible’ garden, it has become a natural health service.

A previously derelict space, it has been transformed by young people aged 14-18 supported by a broad cross-section of community volunteers. Nominated for the second year, the garden is home to fruit trees, vegetables, two hens, polytunnels and, most importantly, a shed for making tea.

Declan Donnelly from Ballymoney said tending the garden leaves individuals, families and groups, with a “tremendous sense of sharing and learning”.

“This is a safe space where people feel valued and connected to people and the natural world,” he said. “Local schools also use the site. Our garden is about engagement and the wonder of growing as well as the beauty of the world around us.”

Incredible Edible Cloughmills is a ‘natural health service’, he added.

“It enhances physical and emotional well-being. It gives people hope, choices and control over what they eat.

“We have planted the seeds of hope and the community will harvest the results.”

Best school

Charities and vulnerable people have benefited from the dedication of the pupils at St Columbanus’ College.

Thousands of pounds have been raised by the college in Bangor, Co Down, after it formed its own conference of charity in 2008.

Pupils have spearheaded countless fundraising events, created hampers for the elderly and vulnerable, and also launched family appeals.

Among the numerous charities to benefit from their work are St Vincent de Paul, Trócaire, HUGS (Helping Ugandan Schools) and the NI Children's Hospice. One parent, Sarah Havlin, said: “I'm just a very proud parent. I think schools like St Columbanus’ College are the model of the future of education — organically integrated and inclusive, committed to their local community and fully collaborative in co-operating with their neighbouring schools.”

Best neighbour

Martina McDonald is a fantastic person who shows great compassion for her elderly neighbours.

The mother-of-two from south Belfast has shown “selfless care” for one pensioner in particular.

Catherine Curran from Belfast, who nominated Martina for the award, said that Martina’s compassion for others deserves to be recognised.

“Martina is a fantastic neighbour and a wonderful person who has shown true compassion for others without a second thought for herself,” she said.

Catherine explained that it is the help and compassion Martina shows to her elderly neighbour, Kathleen, that prompted her to make the nomination.

“Kathleen has no children or husband and doesn't get to see as much of her siblings as she would like to, so she is quite reliant on calls from visitors like me,” she said.

“I learnt from Kathleen that she was quite friendly with her neighbour, Martina, who would also call in on her from time to time.

“Over the years Kathleen's sight has worsened to the point now where she is suffering from significant visual impairment.

“She has recently also suffered from some ill-health and has had to change her daily routine following a long spell in hospital.

“Martina has been a wonderful friend to Kathleen, bringing her dinner, spending time with her and helping her out with day to day errands.

“Martina's kindness to her neighbour has always been a source of strength for Kathleen, and an inspiration to me.

“Martina has always found time for her neighbour, has selflessly aided her in various situations, supporting her and helping her whilst maintaining her dignity.

“All this while looking after her own young twin boys!”

Best art/sport/community project

Their vision is to brighten the lives of as many children as possible battling illness.

A stay in hospital can be an anxious time for a child or young person and their families.

And since 2005 the team of 10 NI ClownDoctors have visited over 4,000 children in hospitals and hospices each year to put a smile on their faces.

Every week this team of colourful characters, such as Dr Clooless and Dr Muddle, visit centres in Belfast, as well as the Ulster Hospital, Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry and Benbradagh Day Centre in Limavady.

Set up by Arts Care, the NI ClownDoctors team works in partnership with the clinical staff involved on the needs of each child visited.

Many of those they visit have serious conditions and many are life-limited or living with disabilities.

In the nomination, staff and parents praised the project for having a positive impact on the health and well-being of each child that it visits. A Hospital Play Specialist at Altnagelvin Hospital said: “It changes the atmosphere on the ward to quiet laughter and singing... a great distraction for both parents and staff.”

And a mother of a patient said: “Five minutes of support from the ClownDoctors to me is like an hour to someone else, it allows me some time for a wee break.”

For the team of NIClownDoctors, creating laughter really is a serious business.

Best volunteer

Joe Bourke is a superb role model who has overcome his own visual impairment to help transform the lives of others.

For over five years the 40-year-old from Bangor, Co Down, has become “an exemplary and reliable” volunteer with The Cedar Foundation — a charity that supports and empowers children and adults with disabilities throughout Northern Ireland. Despite being affected by deteriorating vision he has opened up the digital world of communication for many.

His one-to-one IT training and support to groups of other visually impaired people has not only improved their job opportunities, but also their independence. And according to his nomination, he has helped one person transform from being “computer-phobic” to representing Northern Ireland as a ‘digital champion’ for the Race Online 2012 People’s Task Force.

“Joe was instrumental in highlighting to Cedar the need for specialised IT training for visually impaired people,” his nomination said.

It added that he deserves the award in recognition of his “inspiration and drive in supporting and encouraging people with disabilities to use technology and get online”.

“He is a superb role model who uses his knowledge and skills as someone with a visual impairment to help others to overcome the difficulties he has experienced,” his nomination said.

Best street - sponsored by Airtricity

It is one street but is considered a community ‘hub’ for hundreds of residents living in south Belfast.

Bouncy castles, summer barbecues and children’s parties — it has become a focal point for fun-filled events that bring young and old together throughout the year.

The people living in Barrington Street are not only friendly amongst themselves, but their neighbourliness extends to those in surrounding streets.

Community worker Adrienne Magill explained: “The people in the street are fantastic and warm — but it is used by so many others living close by.

“They love to see community events taking place in their own street.

“We don’t all live in Barrington Street, but the neighbours never complain. The neighbours would even come and brush the street with you to make sure it is kept looking nice.

“In the summer we would have bouncy castles and barbecues — we also have tea dances.

“At Christmas we had a lantern parade and there is a real sense of good old-fashioned community spirit.

“It really deserves to be recognised as a great street.”

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 in the neighbourhood.

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, give lifts or are just always there to help and listen.

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

999 Hero: Someone who, through an 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 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 dull streets, or a small back garden.

Carer in the Community: We want to find an amazing person who has dedicated their time to looking after someone in their 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 a even a street they believe worthy of an award.

The public can enter two ways:

1— 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. Or ...

2— email your nomination to:

Belfast Telegraph


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