Belfast Telegraph

PM in personal thank you to Northern Ireland charity champion Willie

By Ivan Little

Prime Minister Theresa May has taken time out of her hectic Brexit negotiations and her concerns over the Iran nuclear crisis to honour a charity fundraiser from Northern Ireland.

Willie Gregg has been recognised by Mrs May for his support for orphans in Thailand in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.

But the Portrush bar manager revealed that he initially thought the phone call telling him about the Prime Minister's Points of Light award, which recognises inspirational volunteers making a change in their community, was a wind-up.

"I thought someone was taking a hand out of me and I put the phone down," says Willie. "But a very nice lady rang back to say the award was no joke."

Mrs May's Point of Light awards are presented every day to people in the UK to celebrate what officials say are their 'remarkable achievements'.

Willie sprang into action after seeing harrowing TV footage of the devastation in Thailand on Boxing Day 2004.

Around 228,000 people were killed as a result of the 9.1 magnitude quake and the giant waves that slammed into coastlines.

The former Portrush fisherman flew out to Phuket with the intention of helping his local counterparts whose boats were all wrecked by the tsunami.

But while he was there, he was shocked by the plight of hundreds of children orphaned by the disaster and on his return home set up Willie's Orphan Fund to raise an initial £250,000 to finance an orphanage.

In a personal letter to Willie, Theresa May said: "By establishing 'Willie's Orphan Fund' in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, you have supported hundreds of vulnerable children living in Thailand.

"You should feel enormously proud of your continuous fundraising efforts in Portrush which are helping so many children to attend school and rebuild their lives."

Willie at first thought his charity efforts would last no more than a year but his fund is still busy helping disadvantaged children as well as covering the costs of running a school for them.

A number of the orphans have now graduated from university and have families of their own.

The orphanage continues to provide a home for abandoned children and Willie keeps the charity funded by regularly raising £2,000 a month in Portrush.

After accepting that the award wasn't a hoax, Willie's next thought was to dedicate the honour to Rotjana Phraesrithong, the woman who ran the orphanage.

Rotjana, who was described as a surrogate mum to hundreds of children, died from cancer last year on the 13th anniversary of the tsunami.

"Nothing would have been possible in Thailand without Rotjana so this honour is for her," added Willie.

Three years ago Rotjana brought a group of Thai youngsters to Northern Ireland to thank people who had supported Willie's fundraising efforts.

She also took the children to Londonderry where they sang songs of tribute at the grave of Gerry Anderson, the late BBC radio presenter who promoted the orphan fund.

During her last visit Rotjana said Willie Gregg was 'a saint'.

Willie will hang the PM's award in the Harbour Bar in Portrush for his fund's backers to see.

"I am so proud and humbled for being the recipient of such a prestigious award for my charity work," he said. "Thank you so much Mrs Prime Minister. I hope to thank you personally some day."

Willie is the 901st winner of the Points of Light award, which has been developed in partnership with the hugely successful Points of Light programme in the USA.

More than 6,000 Points of Light have been awarded in the USA, and former presidents have publicly supported the partnership with Points of Light UK.

Last year Willie was the overall winner in the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland awards.

He said he hopes the Prime Minister's award will open more doors for his charity fundraising, adding: "The work never stops. This year's big project is to re-build a playground that I helped to construct 12 years ago."

Belfast Telegraph

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