Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Our night of heroes: Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards 2015 with Specsavers

Tears, laughter and pride as we honour exceptional people.

By Christopher Woodhouse

Last night we shone the limelight on ordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things in our annual celebration of everyday heroes - the 2015 Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers.

Although the gala ceremony at the Culloden Hotel in Holywood was teaming with top celebrities the real stars of the night were our 15 awards finalists.

In what is always an emotional evening, the assembled guests were moved as they heard the inspirational stories behind our very special nominees.

The top honour on the night, the overall Spirit of Northern Ireland award, went to Lurgan lad Jay Beatty. It was presented by music mogul Louis Walsh, Sunday Life editor Martin Breen and Specsavers store director Tony McGinn.

Jay, 11, who was born with Down's Syndrome, leapt onto the stage to collect the £1,000 prize courtesy of care recruitment and domiciliary agency, Peninsula Care Services.

The Celtic-mad football fanatic stole the hearts of all footie fans when he won the Scottish goal of the month award for his half-time effort during a clash between his beloved Hoops and Hamilton in February.

His infectious and inspiring spirit earned him the admiration of our judging panel who were amazed at how the modest young boy has become a champion for those living with Down's Syndrome.

But Jay couldn't believe his luck when Northern Ireland footballers Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt joined team manager Michael O'Neill to present him with his U105 Young Person finalist trophy.

"I'm very proud, thank you very much for a special night," said Jay after being presented with the overall Spirit of Northern Ireland award later on.

"It was very humbling, it was an unbelievable moment."

Jay's dad Martin was left stunned when his son scooped the top award of the night.

"I'm speechless, I would just like to thank Sunday Life, UTV and Specsavers for putting on such a wonderful night but also the people of Northern Ireland, they've taken Jay to their hearts," said Martin.

"They've looked past the disability he has, we are so humbled by this award and very emotional."

Every year our judging panel, led this year by Louis Walsh, face the tough task of deciding who is the stand-out winner in each category - and 2015 was no exception.

The first award of the evening was the U105 Young Person of the year award, picked up by a stunned Danielle McGriskin.

Receiving her trophy from Louis Walsh's hot new boyband Hometown and UTV's Julian Simmons, Danielle impressed the judges with her phenomenal fundraising efforts for the Brain Tumour Charity.

Meet the celebs who turned out to honour Northern Ireland's everyday heroes at the Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards

The 18-year-old has collected over £100,000 since her diagnosis with the disease in 2011 with Prime Minister David Cameron even recognising her astonishing efforts.

"I'm still very surprised I've won the Young Person award, I'm so grateful to people who nominated people and I would love to thank them," Danielle said after picking up her award.

"It will raise incredible awareness for the Brain Tumour Charity for which I'm very grateful."

Just as surprised was the winner of the Sunday Life Unsung Hero category, Patricia Nevines. Sunday Life editor Martin Breen was joined by Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody to present the inspirational animal sanctuary founder with her richly deserved trophy.

The audience was awed by the story of how the 81-year-old has sustained the Talnotry Avian Care Trust (TACT) in Crumlin, Co Antrim, since 1978, even using her pension money to keep the trust going.

"It's fantastic, I'm thrilled to bits to be honoured in this way and hopefully it will give the sanctuary a bit of a boost," said Patricia.

The phenomenal woman even brought along one of her rescued fox cubs, George, who sat patiently in her car outside while Patricia was honoured with her award.

Another heart-warming winner was six-year-old Oliver Dickey who took home the Specsavers Overcoming Adversity award. The brave Coleraine lad's fight to overcome debilitating spastic diplegia, which left him unable to walk, won the unanimous admiration of the judges.

Those in the ballroom of the Culloden Hotel were clearly moved at the story of how young Oliver fought against his condition to take his first steps at age five.

Presenting Oliver with his award was Coleraine actress Bronagh Waugh who went to the same school as Oliver does now, Millburn Primary in the town.

"From the minute he wakes up to the minute he goes to bed, we're so proud of him," said mum Charlene.

"It's absolutely overwhelming, it's always onwards and upwards," she added.

But there was barely a dry eye in the house as Mark McMullan sang Bring Him Home from the musical Les Miserables.

Mark's brother Declan suffers from locked-in syndrome and their father John was a finalist in the Unsung Hero category.

- All of our readers can share in the magic of the evening as the ceremony, presented by Pamela Ballantine and Frank Mitchell, was filmed for a special one-hour UTV programme which will be broadcast this Friday at 9pm.

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