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:

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday


We would be all the poorer without libraries

BETWEEN the ages of 14 and 16, every Saturday morning I would walk the mile or so from my house in Sneyd Green to the city centre with a rucksack slung over my shoulder.
My destination was Hanley Library and I didn’t mind the trek because I was on a homework mission.
Geoff Ball, that most charismatic and engaging of history teachers at Holden Lane High, would ask my class to find out everything we could about a certain historical figure.
So it was upstairs to the reference library I would head in search of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I can still recall the smell of those black, leather-bound tomes.
I’ve always been a bookworm which is why I loved the library. I wasn’t interested in borrowing videos, records or those new-fangled CDs. I was there for the books.
I vividly recall swotting up on Il Duce – Benito Mussolini – and the ensuing pride at my pencil sketch of the Italian dictator.
This was, of course, the mid Eighties – otherwise known, children, as before the internet.
If you wanted to find something out you didn’t type it into a search engine, you went and looked it up in a book.
You see, as much as I enjoy the benefits of the digital age, I have to say I’m still a terrible snob when it comes to the written word.
I’ll defend books, and libraries, to the death and when I read about the closure of these bastions of learning as part of council cutbacks I can’t help but feel incredibly sad and worried for the future.
There’s something about having a library card and visiting a place dedicated to knowledge.
You see, despite what successive governments have been telling us, no-one can convince me that standards of literacy are going up year-on-year.
I think the truth is that so much emphasis these days is placed on computer-based learning that generations of children are growing up without a love or appreciation of books which I think is a crying shame. And, at the risk of sounding like some dinosaur, give me a good book any day of the week – something I can hold in my hand – as opposed to a screen to stare at.
I visit schools to be shown the wonderful LRCs (learning resource centres) filled with lap top computers – and then despair at the fact that I have a bigger library of actual books upstairs at home.
On Sunday morning I sat with my eldest daughter Lois, who is six, and watched open-mouthed as she navigated her way around her school’s website – or ‘virtual learning environment’.
Now I don’t mind her spending a little time on a PC because Lois loves real books. We’ve read to her every night since she was six months old and she’s never without a Meg and Mog story, a Horrid Henry book or something by Julia Donaldson.
She’s also got a complete children’s encyclopedia which she’s now using every week to help her to get more out of the different topics at school.
I know that she’ll grow up with a love of books akin to my own but I wonder how many other children – shoved in front of a telly, wired into a games console or glued to a computer screen for hours on end will be as fortunate.
Yes, I understand full well that the ability to rip stuff off the internet is an essential tool for school children and students these days.
But I fear that this aversion to books is genuinely damaging.
Critics argue that libraries have failed to adapt to changing times and fashions.
They say, with some justification, that learning habits have changed, that books, music and DVDs are cheap to buy and that information is readily available via the worldwide web.
In other words – libraries as we know them, the libraries that I grew up with, are past their sell-by date.
Wrong. Anyone who has ever visited a library and watched a children’s story session knows what a magic libraries can weave.
Anyone who, like me, spent a little time at a library on World Book Night understands the key role these places have – the way in which they can bring people together through literature and the arts.
They may have to evolve further and offer other local authority services but I feel very strongly that libraries are crucial to our communities and that we would be all the poorer without them.

Don’t be a party-pooper over prom nights

A colleague pointed rather sniffily at an event which took place at a local school over the weekend.
“Well, I mean it’s daft, isn’t it? We never had that sort of thing in my day,” she said, flouncing off.
The event in question was a prom fair held at Wolstanton High School aimed at giving hundreds of youngsters ideas for the big party to mark the end of their school days.
For those who don’t know, the idea of the ‘prom’ originated in the U.S. and Canada.
Prom is short for promenade – sadly nothing at all to do with the front at Rhyl or Blackpool.
No, this kind of prom is a formal dance for high school students.
It is a chance to choose a ‘Prom King’ and ‘Prom Queen’ – awarded to the most popular students chosen in a school-wide vote.
Other accolades are also given out for sporting excellence and such like – often leading to the creation of a Prom Court of the school’s great and good from a particular year group.
In the States the prom figures greatly in popular culture and is a major event for high school students.
It has only really taken off in the UK in the last 10 years where more and more schools are starting to embrace the concept.
However, many people – like my colleague – don’t approve of the idea of allowing spotty herberts to dress up in black tie and young girls to don evening gowns.
They see it as a nonsensical extravagance – an excuse for the underage to consume alcohol, dress inappropriately, ride around in limousines and and make ill-advised lunges at their classmates.
In other words … they are jealous that such parties didn’t happen when they were at school.
Of course, the idea of a big bash to celebrate the end of your school life is nothing new.
In fact, my very first experience of a nightclub was when the class of 1988 from Holden Lane High held its leavers’ party at the infamous Chicos in Hanley.
I can still vividly remember dancing (I use the term loosely) to Erasure and making eyes across the dancefloor at a dark-haired girl who was way out of my league as I sat nursing a glass of Coke.
I may not have been cool but I don’t think the leavers’ party did me any permanent damage.
Although, I have to say, I’m pleased there was no voting for the most popular pupils in my day because, unless there had been an award for Squarest History Student, yours truly wouldn’t have troubled the scorers.
Nonetheless, I firmly believe that the end of your school days is a milestone worth celebrating.
For many, it marks an end to the comfort blanket of full-time education before the great party-pooper that is work kicks in.
For everyone it is the end of friendships and acquaintances that began way back in primary school, perhaps at the age of just five years old.
You don’t realise it at the time but very often you never see some of your school friends again and so creating a shared memory at a prom is perhaps no bad thing.
There is a tendency in this country to assume guilt when it comes to our young people.
We seize on mistakes, blame bad parenting and a lack of discipline and forget that, yes, we too were young once.
Maybe I’m being naive but I like to think that the more we treat our youngsters like adults the more they are inclined to act responsibly.
The fact is that most teenagers will be dressing beyond their years, dabbling with booze and exploring relationships with the opposite sex anyway.
At least a prom focuses their energy on an event where they can perhaps appreciate the changes that are coming upon them and really understand and value friendships forged over time.
Let’s face it, being a grown-up is grim enough, so we should let our school-leavers live a little before inflicting real life on them.
Later this month the class of ’88 from Holden Lane will hold another reunion and I dare say every one of us would give our right arm to be 16 again and for a shot at a prom crown.

Home is where the help is when it comes to education

The look on his face was priceless. “It’s long hours,” I said, “you work late nights and plenty of weekends and you don’t have a social life. Oh, and the pay’s not great.”

Well, there’s no point in sugar-coating it, now is there?

I’m not quite sure what he was expecting, but the lad in question was only 12 and has a few years yet before he has to start fretting about career options.

Thus, I figured the truth wouldn’t do any lasting damage.

Fair play to him, because at his age I was too busy playing Dungeons & Dragons to give much thought to what I wanted to do when I left school.

Although I do remember attending a careers evening with my mum and dad a picking up all sorts of glossy brochures – none of which aided me on the path to full-time employment.

I also recall visiting The Sentinel’s man (who shall remain nameless) that night at Holden Lane High and coming away thinking that he was dull and he had put me off newspapers for life.

In my defence, I did tell all the students at Painsley Catholic College in Cheadle that journalism was one of the best jobs in the world, that no two days were the same and that you get to meet some fascinating people in my line of work.

Thus my mantra won’t have put too many of them off following in my footsteps.

In two hours I was visited by 32 pupils, aged 12 to 15, and their parents.

Happily, there was always a queue. Meanwhile several solicitors, architects and accountants had fallen asleep against their impressive display boards.

Indeed, apart from Staffordshire Police (who seemed to be cheating by giving away freebies), The Sentinel’s table was possibly the most popular – which just goes to show that the lure of a career in the media is still as strong as ever in this age of soundbites and overnight celebrity.

Hopefully, I disabused all my visitors of the notion that media work entails chasing Cheryl Cole around 24/7 or writing just the one showbiz exclusive each week.

In doing so I filled their heads full of the joys of learning 100 words-per-minute shorthand and covering court cases before tempting them with what I consider to be the unique selling points of the job.

You see, I am acutely aware of the fact that, unlike when I was ‘choosing my options’ back in the mid-1980s, the students of today have very long academic lives ahead of them.

A much higher percentage of them will go to university than in my day when only the cream of the crop went off to enjoy cap and gown land.

This also means most of them will be saddled with a huge tuition fees debt before they’ve even earned a bean.

That simply can’t be right – especially when youngsters north of the border are being given the same opportunities for free. The joys of devolution, eh?

Talking to Painsley’s pupils was strangely humbling and I felt privileged to be there.

They all came across as polite, articulate and confident – a credit to their school.

But the thing that struck me most, as a bloke with two young daughters and as a school governor myself, was that every one of them was accompanied by a parent or guardian.

I was very fortunate to have supportive parents and remember my mum spending countless nights reading with me and helping me with my homework.

Now she’s doing it all over again with my daughters and exhibiting the same patience she showed with me.

As for my career choice, well that was down to my elderly next-door-neighbour, Joan Harding, who – while helping me revise for an English exam one evening – suggested I play to my strengths and find a job that involved writing.

She also gave me my first shorthand book – Pitman’s, of course – none of this newfangled Teeline business.

Which all goes to show that you can receive great advice and have the best teachers in the world but you can’t beat having help at home.

So thanks, mum… and thanks Mrs Harding.

We all know who deserves the real credit for anything I achieve.

Fast food makes youngsters slow to choose a healthy lifestyle

Sajid Munir, owner of Bilaal's fast food takeaway, with protesters.

Sajid Munir, owner of Bilaal’s fast food takeaway, with protesters.

When people in North Staffordshire start raising a petition they generally mean business.

When they start a petition calling for a new chip shop near their homes they are simply helping someone else’s.

And that’s exactly what people in Trent Vale are doing right now after entrepreneur Rakesh Kumar resubmitted plans for an empty shop – despite being knocked back last year.

Apparently Hartshill or Oakhill is too far for these fast food fans to travel. I mean, it’s practically the other side of the moon, you know.

Meanwhile, back in my neck of the woods – Sneyd Green – an astonishing 400 people have been moved to sign a petition to save Bilaal’s Kebab and Balti house from demolition.

The circumstances are markedly different, of course. Bilaal’s is an established business and the city council wants to knock down the building as it is part of an ‘under-used’ row of shops.

Unfortunately, they forgot to tell owner Sajid Munir or consult with local residents about the proposals, which have left officials with egg – or possibly salt and lemon – on their faces.

I should declare an interest here.

Way back in 1988, when yours truly was in his final year at Holden Lane High, Bilaal’s – which is just over the road – was a chippy owned by the father of my classmate Justina.

When pocket money allowed that’s where we got our cut-price chips and gravy.

More recently my brother has treated me to the odd kebab from Bilaal’s which is opposite my dad’s local. Mighty fine they are too. (No relish thanks, Oz).

Thus in this case I’d be sad to see the bulldozers move in – particularly as it is a viable business and Mr Munir recently spent tens of thousands of pounds doing the place up.

But, as an overweight, middle-aged father-of-two with a tendency to blame his expanding waistline on illness rather than a poor diet and not walking the dog enough, I have to say ‘enough is enough’ when it comes to fast food outlets.

In our drive-thru, throw-away society do we really need more chippies, burger bars and pizza houses? Of course we don’t.

If we want fast food options we are never more than five minutes away from a retailer willing to oblige. Or we can nip to Festival Park and play spot the boy-racer while choosing between Subway, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut or Frankie & Benny’s – to name but a few.

Now take a look around you.

Take a walk through the Potteries Shopping Centre. It’s like a salad-dodgers’ convention.

Watch the crowds streaming out of the Brit or Vale Park on a match day. It’s not hard to spot who ate all the pies, is it?

Never mind political-correctness, the nation is getting fatter. Fact. And the people of North Staffordshire have been getting even fatter than their counterparts in other areas of the country.

I don’t need some sunflower-seed munching expert from the department of nutrition and dietetics to tell me why, either.

Sure, income plays a part in the diets of some families. Some people have ‘slow metabolisms’ or genuine health issues which mean they find it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

And others, with very little motivation, self-esteem or willpower, gorge themselves on far too much of the wrong kinds of foods and do hardly any exercise and thus get bigger and more unhealthy every year.

The Potteries is full of such people. And, worryingly, more and more of them are children.

Currently, more than a fifth of Stoke-on-Trent’s 186,000 adults are obese (the highest proportion of any area in the West Midlands).

We are in the middle of an obesity epidemic and we need help now so that more people live longer and the local NHS doesn’t become over-burdened with generations of people suffering all manner of weight and diet-related ailments.

Stoke-on-Trent currently has 226 hot food takeaways, along with 131 cafés and snack bars, which include big-name fast food chain outlets.

So, what we certainly don’t need is more chippies.

The city’s future health and prosperity may not hinge on the decision over the empty shop in Trent Vale. But being careful about the kind of businesses we want in our communities is a step in the right direction.

I, for one, hope the city council does as it has indicated it might, and introduces new, tighter planning controls to reduce the number of takeaways opening in the city.

Meanwhile, we have to stop signing daft petitions get off our backsides, leave the car on the drive and – if needs must – walk to the nearest chippy.

Failing that, we could always have a piece of toast.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday