Belfast Telegraph

Joy of autistic student as he receives bursary in memory of devoted Derry teacher

By Leona O'Neill

An autistic teenager, whose parents were told he would never attend mainstream school, is enjoying his first year at university helped by a bursary created in memory of the teacher who always believed in him.

Billy Quigley is studying Interactive Media at Ulster University in Coleraine. He was awarded the Patricia Hughes Bursary earlier this year which will help him pay for his accommodation and fees.

Ms Hughes (55) taught English at St Columb's College in Londonderry. As a pastoral carer, she often helped children from disadvantaged backgrounds, paying for books, trips and stationery for those whose families were under financial pressure.

The much-loved teacher died suddenly in 2016 and her family set up the bursary last year in her honour, to mirror her kindness and generosity, and ensure every student has an equal chance to receive third level education based on merit, not financial background.

Nineteen-year-old Ballyarnett student Billy is the first to receive the bursary.

Ms Hughes helped him adjust to life in St Columb's College as a first year, and was there for him when his father tragically died of cancer seven years ago.

"Ms Hughes didn't actually teach me, but she was always the go-to person for me," he says. "I remember a time in first year when I was struggling with the move from primary school to secondary school, she was an amazing support. She was a familiar face for me, always.

"It was really tough when she passed away. It was so unexpected. She was friendly and helpful, we were all totally gobsmacked. It was just heartbreaking. The whole school was devastated.

"I heard about the bursary and applied and because I knew Ms Hughes so well I thought it would be a nice thing to do. On the application I wrote about the voluntary work that I did. My Dad died in 2012 of cancer and early the next year we went to a bereavement group called YouthLife who help children with loss. It was really good and I trained and became part of the team. I am now able to help children on their own journey with grief.

"I talked about all of that, and my hopes and dreams, in the bursary application and was asked to an interview. I couldn't believe it when they told me I got the bursary.

"The bursary means everything to me. I can pay for my accommodation. It will help me with travelling home to see my Mum also, which is important. It has made such a difference. I have a bit more support and it will take a lot of a strain off me. And I go to America in the third year of my studies also, so that will be my first time travelling on my own, and the bursary helped make that happen."

Billy's mum Michelle says Ms Hughes always believed in her son and pushed him on to achieve his dreams.

It's a long way from the consultancy room where Michelle says she was told to accept that Billy would never attend mainstream school.

"Billy is on the autism spectrum," she explains. "When he was born he was in intensive care because I am Type 1 diabetic. Billy was diagnosed with a global development delay. The child psychologist told me he would never go to a mainstream school. After doing a lot of research online I decided not to focus on the autism, but on Billy. I tried to forget about the label people put on him.

"At the time there wasn't a special education needs teacher at St Columb's, so what Ms Hughes did for Billy was amazing. She made life easier for him. She had a great belief in him. She always pushed him to do better.

"She only ever had the students' needs at heart. I don't know what we would have done without her. And because of her help, Billy has proved everyone wrong.

"The bursary isn't for the elite. Billy was never top of the class, or bottom of the class. But him receiving the bursary will give other boys the confidence to apply for it. That is what Ms Hughes would have wanted."

Billy says he is working hard to make Ms Hughes, and his late father Bill, proud: "I'm putting my all into everything that I do, to make sure I get the best out of what I'm doing. I am working hard to make her and my dad really proud. I know that their expectations are high. I am so thankful to Ms Hughes' family."

Speaking on behalf of his family, Ms Hughes' nephew, Padraig Delargy, said: "We are delighted to have such a worthy winner as the inaugural recipient of the Patricia Hughes Bursary scheme. Billy's commitment to helping others is a continuing inspiration to other young people in Derry and beyond, and we hope that the bursary allows Billy to pursue and develop the wealth of talents he possesses.

"In creating this bursary, we were keen to enable a young man to make a substantial difference to his community. We are very proud of the work Billy has done, and believe that Patricia would also be very proud of all that Billy has achieved."

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