Please help us to honour Our Heroes of 2014

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

It was back in early 2006 when I sat down with the then Editor of The Sentinel and we talked about creating a community awards campaign.

We kicked around some ideas for categories, thought about how the awards ceremony would work and finally came up with a name.

Nine years on and Our Heroes is firmly established as this newspaper’s flagship annual community event.

On September 25 an array of TV, stage and sporting stars and a host of civic dignitaries will gather on the red carpet to pay tribute to a remarkable group of individuals highlighted through our news pages.

Ask celebrities such as Jonny Wilkes, Nick Hancock, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks OBE and Olympic gold medallist Imran Sherwani and they will tell you that the Our Heroes Awards do is an incredibly humbling and grounding experience which makes all those in attendance feel extremely proud of our patch.

Every day now until July 31 you can read inspirational and humbling human interest stories in The Sentinel as we shine a light on each award nominee.

They range from children of courage and bright young things to charity fund-raisers, volunteers and carers, good neighbours and community groups. They include school stars and heroes of the NHS as well as emergency services and Armed Forces personnel who go beyond the call of duty.

Since 2006 we have published more than 1,000 Our Heroes nominations and more than 2,000 people have attended the gala awards dinner.

Previous award recipients have included foster carers, charity fund-raisers, paramedics, policemen and women, firefighters, soldiers, aspiring performers, doctors, nurses, receptionists, teachers, school caretakers and residents’ associations.

Winners have included cancer drug campaigners, the Women Fighting for Herceptin; courageous youngsters including meningitis sufferer Ellie-Mae Mellor and Caudwell Children ambassador Tilly Griffiths; ‘tin can man’ John Leese MBE who raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Dougie Mac; and even the Staffordshire Regiment (now 3Mercian).

The local media is often criticised for focusing on the negative in society and fixating on bad news.

Our Heroes rather disproves that notion because it gets under the skin of the daily acts of kindness, bravery and selflessness shown by so many people in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

It’s not a campaign which will sell us thousands of extra newspapers but the goodwill and pride generated by highlighting all these amazing individuals is priceless.

The Our Heroes Awards is exactly what a local newspaper should be doing – a genuine antidote to all the hardship and misery, all the stories about deaths, crime, accidents, deprivation and job losses.

Each tale is inherently positive and highlights an unsung hero, heroine or group who perhaps otherwise would receive no recognition for their extraordinary lives.

And therein, of course, lies the problem for my colleagues and I which is that those nominated for an Our Heroes Award don’t believe what they do – day-in, day-out – is unusual.

It’s our job to convince them otherwise and to show them how special they really are.

In order to do that, however, we need your help. If you know someone, or a group, who deserves recognition then please just take a moment to pick up the telephone or email one of the reporters tasked with looking after a particular category.

Please help us to honour those who enrich the lives of others. Tell us who Our Heroes for 2014 really are.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Why cancer isn’t what it used to be…

Inspirational teenager cancer sufferer Stephen Sutton.

Inspirational teenager cancer sufferer Stephen Sutton.

The ‘Big C’ they used to call it. Once you’d been diagnosed that was it. It was just a matter of how long you had left before the disease took you from your loved ones.

Cancer still retains that aura of dread but with each passing year the reputation of this indiscriminate killer diminishes a little.

This week’s news from Cancer Research that half of people in England and Wales now being diagnosed with the disease will survive at least a decade is hugely significant and should give hope to millions of people.

It is testimony to the wonderful work of scientists, doctors and researchers who have taken enormous strides towards confounding cancer since the dark days of the early 1970s when being given the diagnosis was seen as the end of the world.

New treatments, earlier diagnosis and screening have all played a part in increasing the life-span and, crucially, the quality of life of those afflicted by cancer.

All of this, of course, has been paid for by tireless fund-raisers who continue to underwrite these advances in medicine and treatment – often as a tribute to friends or family members who have been victims of the disease.

It is this triumph of the human spirit which, in my opinion, is doing more than anything to chase away the spectre of cancer.

Just look at the way the courage of cancer victim Stephen Sutton, struck down by terminal illness in his teens, has touched the hearts of people across the UK and even around the world.

Stephen’s legacy won’t simply be the millions of pounds he has raised for the Teenage Cancer Trust. It will be a legacy of hope and inspiration for thousands of young people who find themselves in a similar, crushing, situation.

Then there’s little Frankie Allen, from Burslem, whose beautiful smile as she battles leukaemia has prompted hundreds of people across the Potteries into action to show her she’s not alone.
We’re with you ‘til the end of the line, kid.

And what about Maia Handyside, from Stone? The 13-year-old’s bravery in telling her story in The Sentinel recently has brought into sharp focus the affect cancer has on young people – acutely aware of their own self-image.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine – former Sentinel journalist Richard Firth – did something amazing.

Together with my colleague John Woodhouse, he ran the London Marathon in aid of the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT) in honour of his young daughter who was affected by the disease.

I’m sure Richard won’t mind me saying that, like me, he’s not really got the build of a long-distance runner but nonetheless he completed this astonishing feat for his princess and I am in awe of him.

This is that triumph of the human spirit I mentioned earlier.

Last but by no means least, who could forget North Staffordshire’s very own Women Fighting For Herceptin – led by the indefatigable Dot Griffiths?

Their fortitude in overcoming a postcode lottery and forcing the Government to make the cancer drug Herceptin available to all women who wanted it was a genuine game-changer which has enriched the lives of thousands of women all over the country.

I could go on because there are countless examples of resilience shown by people affected by this most insidious of illnesses.

The important lesson to learn from all these remarkable individuals is that remaining positive, no matter what the circumstances, is crucial – not only to your own well-being but to those around you.

In August 2008 yours truly was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. My mum had spotted an innocuous-looking lump on my neck and forced me to go to the doctor.

When I got the diagnosis I confess I went into panic mode. All I could think was that I wouldn’t live to see my children grow up and that’s a pretty awful prospect.

I bottled up my feelings, made a will and steeled myself for the worst.

The reality, however, wasn’t nearly so grim and I well remember the words of my consultant as he was explaining what would happen in terms of treatment.

He said: “Cancer isn’t what it used to be.” He was right.

I was lucky. I had a couple of operations and a course of radiotherapy. I now take tablets daily because I don’t have a thyroid and, as a result, face a constant battle with my weight. But it’s no great hardship really. I’m just glad still to be here writing this for you.

Cancer never really goes away. Every time I see an advertisement for one of the cancer charities I have flashbacks to the moment I was given the news.

I pray nightly that it never comes back and my missus gives a monthly donation to Cancer Research UK.

I still visit the consultant once a year – in fact, I’m with him again next week.

If I’ve learned anything (and this may sound ridiculously obvious) it’s that life – for as long as you have it – and the way you live it, is all that matters.

I’m genuinely grateful for every day. Yes, even the ones when I have to get up for work at 5am or don’t finish ’til midnight. I’m extremely grateful for my family and friends. For my daft-as-a-brush dog. For the great job I have and the privilege of writing this column. For my geeky hobbies. For the places I visit. For my perennially-troubled football club. For the people I meet. For every night the kids keep me awake when they’re poorly. For every school homework project and parents’ evening. For every hug and every ‘I love you’.

Cancer won’t be eradicated in my lifetime but with each passing decade the fear, pain and loss it inflicts will diminish and we can all play a part in that.

Cancer isn’t what it used to be, you know.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Please help us to find and reward Our Heroes

Actress Rachel Shenton with Child of Courage nominee Billy Heslop.

Actress Rachel Shenton with Child of Courage nominee Billy Heslop.

Yesterday The Sentinel launched this year’s search for unsung heroes from across its patch.

I am, of course, referring to the Our Heroes community awards campaign where this newspaper and its partner organisation – the Aspire Group – seek to highlight the lives and work of special individuals and organisations.

Categories range from Child of Courage and Bright Young Thing to Adult Carer Of the Year and Charity Champion/Fund-raiser Of The Year through to School Star and Hero Of The NHS.

We honour members of the emergency services and the Armed Forces as well as community groups whose efforts make such a difference to people’s lives.

The Sentinel publishes their stories then our panel of independent judges convenes to choose three individuals or groups from each category who will attend a glitzy, celebrity gala night.

That’s when the likes of Nick Hancock, Jonny Wilkes, Anthea Turner, Wendy Turner-Webster, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks, OBE, Mark Bright, Imran Sherwani, John Rudge, Peter Coates – among others – are only too happy to give the applause rather than to receive it.

They turn out each year on the red carpet to pay tribute to ordinary folk from across North Staffordshire and South Cheshire who have rather extraordinary stories to tell.

We’ve already had more than a dozen nominations but we’re going to need an awful lot more.
That’s where you come in.

Over the next three months The Sentinel will publish around 120 heart-warming stories which put paid to the myth that newspapers are all doom, gloom and negativity.

Remarkably, the biggest challenge when organising an awards event on this scale isn’t arranging the seating plan, shooting 30-plus videos, selecting a menu, or chasing up the VIPs.

It’s actually persuading Sentinel readers to vote for their friends, relatives and colleagues in one of the nine award categories.

You see, the problem is that round here people are rather backward in coming forward – precisely because they don’t believe that what the people they know do, day-in, day-out, is out of the ordinary.

They view their lives very much as the hand they’ve been dealt and just get on with it – whether that means caring for a relative round-the-clock, 365 days a year or coping with tragedy or illness.

Others devote their time to helping those less fortunate than themselves or making their neighbourhoods better places in which to live.

This is the eighth year of the Our Heroes awards and I can honestly say, hand on heart, it is one of the highlights of my year.

Anyone who has ever attended one of the ceremonies will tell you that they are truly inspirational occasions which showcase the triumphs of the human spirit.

They remind you just how lucky you are when you see the adversity others face and overcome and, put quite simply, make you want to be a better person when you see the selflessness and generosity of others.

Over the years The Sentinel has published more than 1,000 inspirational stories of people who have enriched the lives of those around them. People like Edward Dyster who came up with the idea of cycling 150 miles to raise money for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice at the age of just six.

People like Dylan Kelsall, aged nine, from Longton, who has a muscle-wasting disease which means he faces surgery every six months.

People like Stephen Allerton, from Meir, who gave up his job as an engineer to care for his mother, father and brother.

People like cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths and Dougie Mac’s record fund-raiser John Leese, AKA the ‘Tin Can Man’, who have both sadly passed away since receiving their Our Heroes awards.

People like Ralph Johnson, from Biddulph, formerly a teacher at my old school – Holden Lane High – who spent more than 50 years helping to rescue people who got stuck in caves.

People like Colour Sergeant Gary Golbey, originally from Kidsgrove, who won the Beyond The Call Of Duty category after battling back from a brain tumour to complete the full 22 years’ service in the Army.

People like paramedic Rita Davies who tackled a knife-wielding patient who tried to attack a colleague.

People like Graham and Pat Bourne, from May Bank, who have devoted more than 100 years to enriching the lives of youngsters through the Scouting movement.

Each story is unique. Each award recipient extremely deserving. Crucially, each story worth the telling.

On September 19 this year’s unassuming yet amazing nominees will gather for another night to remember.

If you know someone worthy of recognition please don’t hesitate to contact The Sentinel and help us to make them feel special.

*To nominate someone for an Our Heroes award simply email: martin.tideswell@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Middle-age approaches – and I’m taking it seriously… sort of

2012 is a very important year. Well, it is for me, anyway.
This has nothing to do with the London Olympics or even the fact that I have tickets to see The Stone Roses in concert.
No, 2012 is the year I officially become middle-aged.
Some would argue, of course, that this begins when you hit 30.
However, we all know that the big Four-O is the age everyone really dreads and I’m just 68 days away. (Hard to believe, I know).
Yes, I was born in 1972 – a year of momentous events such as Britain finally joining the E.E.C… and the airing of the first episode of Emmerdale Farm.
It’s hard to work out which has since proved the more entertaining soap opera, isn’t it?
One thing’s for sure – there’s nothing like a looming milestone to make you reflect on what has gone before.
In the last decade I have experienced endless sleeplessness and the indescribable pleasure of watching my daughters be born and grow into brilliant little people with whom I can now have proper conversations.
In the last 10 years I have also done things I never thought I’d do – such as visit relatives in New Zealand, try my hand at public speaking, start an internet blog, appear in a pantomime, beat cancer (touch wood) and, crucially, meet Bon Jovi’s guitarist Richie Sambora and The Fonz.
Through my job I’ve also crossed paths with some amazing people in the last decade – people like the Treetops Hospice kids and cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.
My thirties have been very painful for me, at times – not least because the fortunes of my beloved Port Vale have taken such an awful nose-dive.
During the last 10 years, many of the people I looked up to and actually helped to shape who I am have also passed on – leaving genuine voids.
Remarkable people like my old Boys’ Brigade captain Roy Harrison, my Sentinel colleague John Abberley and my nan Ethel.
Suddenly I’m the one people are looking to for words of wisdom or leaning on and, frankly, it’s a sobering thought. As most people are fighting the urge to break two-day old New Year’s resolutions I am trying to crystal ball-gaze into my next 10 years.
Oh yes, I’m taking 40 seriously, alright. Even so, as of March 12 don’t expect me to suddenly start acting my age.
I may wear slippers and I may be on the cusp of middle-age but I’ve still got all my own teeth and (most of) my hair to let down.
There’s certainly no danger of me suddenly liking gardening or starting to watch BBC period dramas.
I won’t be getting a tattoo or anything because I did that when I hit 30. (Chinese symbols – right upper arm, in case you wondered).
However, I will be marking my 40th year with my first trip to the States and having a party with everyone I’ve ever met. More or less.
If you don’t get an invite, don’t worry – just assume yours got lost in the post.
Mine’s a bottle of Newcastle Brown. Cheers.

Our Dot leaves proud legacy following a life less ordinary

Cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.

Cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.

I’ve been fortunate enough, through my work, to meet lots of fascinating and even famous people.

Royalty, musicians, stars of sport and entertainment – I’ve rubbed shoulders with quite a few household names.

Here in the Potteries, of course, we have our own group of celebrities including a pop superstar, TV and stage personalities and one of the world’s greatest sportsmen.

They are all, in their own way, special people deserving of praise who are great ambassadors for North Staffordshire.

But I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the person who has left the greatest impression on me in the last 20 years isn’t any of the above.

Rather it is a woman whose bravery and selflessness shine as a beacons of hope to us all – even as we mourn her passing.

Dot Griffiths died on Friday.

She was, by her own admission, an ordinary woman.

But by anyone’s estimation this grandmother from Hartshill lived a truly extraordinary life.

For 11 years Dot spat in the eye of fate – living, as she did, in the shadow of terminal cancer.

Having fought and won the right to receive the experimental, life-prolonging drug Herceptin back in 2001 anyone would have forgiven her if she had focused on herself during the time she had left.

But that wasn’t Dot’s style.

Despite undergoing a gruelling course of chemotherapy she organised a group of fellow cancer sufferers into a campaign group that became impossible to ignore.

It was a campaign group that went all the way to 10 Downing Street and forced a change in the law which ended the postcode lottery of NHS treatment in relation to Herceptin.

Clad in pink these formidable ladies were – and still remain – the pride of the Potteries.

But they will tell you that it was Dot who was the glue that bound them together.

An appeal fund, named in her honour, then went on to raise more than £100,000 for the oncology unit at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.

Our Dot’s wonderful achievements didn’t go unnoticed, of course.

In 2005 she was named Stoke-on-Trent’s Citizen of the Year.

The following year she was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen.

Dot being Dot, she considered herself representing ‘her girls’ back in the Potteries.

Personally, I remember the night of September 28, 2008, when Dot and the Women Fighting For Herceptin won The Sentinel Editor’s Award at the Our Heroes ceremony.

Two months earlier I had been diagnosed with cancer and five days before the Our Heroes bash I went under the knife to have my thyroid removed.

In spite of much mithering from my doctors and loved ones I was determined to be there on the night as compere because I wanted to be the one to invite Dot and her pals up on to the stage.

Underneath my shirt and dickie bow my neck was bandaged, sweaty and aching. If the truth be told I was knackered.

I remember ad-libbing that I would have ‘crawled over broken glass’ to be able to announce the award.

Everyone stood, Dot cried happy tears and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

My doctor had said: ‘cancer isn’t what it used to be’ and, to me, Dot Griffiths was living proof of that.

I was lucky. My cancer was operable and my chances good.

In 1999 when the tumour was discovered in Dot’s breast it was described as the “size of an orange” and doctors told her she had only 12 to 18 months to live.

As it was the ‘ordinary’ woman from Hartshill soldiered on for more than a decade, lived to see her grandchildren born and watched them grow.

More than that, she found within herself the strength to help others who followed in her footsteps.

We are privileged to call this ‘ordinary’ woman, to whom countless thousands of women and their families across the UK, owe a debt of gratitude, one of our own.

Dot may be gone, but her legacy lives on and her life serves as an inspiration to us all.

I can think of no-one more deserving of a posthumous OBE than our Dot.