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On your bike, Grandad

11 June 2014

The Sam Thompson Bridge is part of the Connswater Community Greenway project, which has transformed east Belfast. The project was part-funded by the Big Lottery Fund with a grant of £23.5 million. Former shipyard worker John McKeag was among the thousands who flocked to the opening of the bridge this spring.

John McKeag at the bridge

John Mckeag at the Sam Thompson Bridge

I’ve been cycling the roads of east Belfast for most of my life. I’m a great- grandfather now, but I still spend much of my spare time out on my bike – and I’m not going to stop now just because I’m turning 92.

I wouldn’t like to get up in the morning and have nothing to do. I’ve been running 74 years, and I’ve been cycling since I could ride a bike.

I worked at Harland and Wolff shipyard my whole working life, first as a welding instructor and then for Lloyd’s Insurance.

So it was great to be one of the first people who crossed the Sam Thompson bridge, just across the way from the shipyard’s famous cranes, Samson and Goliath, when it opened on 4 April. I had cycled the four miles to Victoria Park from my home in Dundonald and across the bridge. But that’s just a short hop for me – I recently took part in a 55-mile cycle to celebrate the Giro d’Italia.

Before I retired, I used to ride my bike from my home in Lisbane in Co Down to the shipyard – a round trip of 25 miles every day.

Now Victoria Park, which is spruced up as part of the Connswater Community Greenway project, is one of my favourite spots.

John McKeag cycling across the Sam Thompson Bridge

John McKeag cycling across the Sam Thompson Bridge

Sport has always been an important part of my life. I recently featured in a BBC Northern Ireland documentary about my sporting endeavours called Run Grandad Run and I have competed in running and cycling events in the UK and Europe.

I have all the trophies for running you can possibly get. I was the first runner over 80 to represent Northern Ireland.

Although I did my last half marathon aged 85, I still like to get out for shorter 5 and 10k runs, one of which is regularly held in Victoria Park.

My love of sport helped me cope when my wife Isobel passed away 22 years ago.

Being involved in cycling, sports and running was one of the things that got me through it. These things get you over adversity.

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Connecting communities

11 June 2014

Sustrans’ National Cycle Network received our biggest ever grant – £50 million – in 2007. Since then the Network has grown to 14,500 miles with millions of cyclists and walkers taking the opportunity to use a safe and environmentally sustainable way to travel.  Melissa Henry, communications director at Sustrans, tracks the Network’s progress.

Melissa Henry

Melissa Henry

December 12th 2007 is etched in my memory – the nerve-wracking wait to hear whether Sustrans, or another of the three other extraordinary projects in the running, had won the public vote to secure £50 million of Lottery funding.

A big amount of money, fitting for our big vision, of people, reconnected to places, creating a sense of pride in their community. Seven years on and our vision is a reality, and nearly four million people now live within a mile of a new walking and cycling network.

Our focus was on addressing barriers to people getting about by foot and bike.  Each network has at its heart a new crossing of a busy road, a railway line or a river, that had previously acted as a barrier to people accessing work, schools, shops, family and friends by foot or bike.

Like here in Bradford, where the busy Manchester Road divided communities, separating children from their school, and people from their friends, preventing access to everyday places.

The project has delivered a variety of iconic, landmark bridges and crossings like this that overcome these barriers whilst promoting a sense of civic pride and community ownership.

And the reach achieved is impressive – within a short distance of the average scheme there are 20 schools, 23,000 households and 53,000 people.

Men and children on bikes and foot repainting cycle way signs in Cardiff

Repainting cycle way signs in Cardiff

Creating safe, convenient routes has led to a major increase in the number of people choosing to walk and cycle, delivering enormous benefits to people’s health and well-being, the local economy and environment.

Our intention was two-fold: to support community cohesion, and to ensure that what was built really did improve accessibility, like the bridge over the A10 that now gives children a safe route to school.

This approach has reaped benefits – more than three quarters of the people who got involved in community events said that they would get involved in similar projects in the future, and half of those who attended events associated with the networks met someone new in their community

Creating direct, safe crossings for those walking and cycling improves access for everyone. A quarter of all households in the UK don’t have access to a car, and for people who do a huge number of short car journeys could be replaced if they felt they had a choice.

And what we’ve seen is staggering – 33 million more trips by foot and bike, and our experience shows that this will increase.

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I’m still here!

10 June 2014

Bernie Montgomery is the founder of Cancer Lifeline – a project which provides vital support for people living with cancer.

If anyone haCancer lifeline's Bernie Montgomeryd told me 17 years ago I’d still be around today with three lovely grandchildren I’d never have believed them.

I’d had a devastating breast cancer diagnosis after I noticed a lump in 1997. A 13% chance of survival means you quickly get things into perspective

Cancer is about needing help ‘now’ – but back then I couldn’t find the what I needed. I needed information about chemotherapy and I’d no idea reconstructive surgery was even available. There were financial worries too – I couldn’t work and feared losing my home.

There had to be a better way so I advertised in a paper asking other women facing cancer to get in touch. Four came to that first meeting in 1999 and since then our group – which developed into Cancer Lifeline  –  has helped hundreds of people affected by cancer from North Belfast, Shankill and Newtownabbey.

By 2011 we realised the scale of the need and an Awards for All grant was the catalyst in creating what we have today. We used the funding to think big and plan ahead.

Since then we’ve received support through Reaching Communities and are currently being funded through the Reaching Out Connecting Older People programme.

This funding is long term which gives you a chance to plan ahead and that’s often the single biggest factor in an organisation’s sustainability. Big Lottery Fund has been with us through every step of our development – giving us the flexibility to try new things and because of this we have been able to work with more than 20,000 people over the past 10 years.

I’m sitting here now and this is a dream. I still have health issues but you know what – I’m alive.

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Living my dream

9 June 2014

Mahima Qureshi, 19, from Newcastle was involved in the planning of Keyfunds Winter Extravaganza, a Big Lottery-funded project which received £106,200 in 2006. The skills and confidence Mahima developed encouraged her to  follow her dream of becoming a henna artist. She has set up her own enterprise and on some weekends has a stall in the Metro Centre.

It all started when I joined Keyfund (now The Key) on a residential for young people with the purpose of organising a big event for other local young people. We decided to hold a concert in Newcastle City Hall, which was generously funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

After months of commitment, problem solving and careful planning, we recruited performers such as Ruff Diamonds, Silvar, Etta Smith and our headlining act Joe McElderry. The concert was a ‘sell out success’ and an AMAZING experience.

Tattoo art on a woamn's backOrganising this event gave me the confidence to do more and inspired me to take every opportunity that was presented to me, which leads me to where I am right now – a 19 year old henna tattoo artist. But I’m not an average traditional henna artist. I wanted to stand out from the crowd. I wanted to be known for doing henna but with a twist, using the body as my canvas to do what I can, to go where the henna cone takes me.

I’d been practising henna since I was 11 years old, but the confidence gained from volunteering with The Key is what has made me who I am today. Using friends and fellow pupils as testers, I’ve turned my passion in to a business and a career, living my dream, performing at shopping centres, events, parties and festivals across the North East.

My work and story had been recognised and I was given the chance to appear in a film, Ambition Lab, documenting my life and my passion with henna art. Soon enough I was watching myself and other young entrepreneurs on a cinema screen at Tyneside Cinema, reflecting on how far I had come.

Through Ambition Lab, I’ve been able to inspire other young people to follow their dreams and make the most of their unique potential. I hope to continue to grow both personally and professionally but most importantly, I want to continue to inspire others to grasp the opportunities around them. If I’d never grabbed the opportunity available through The Key I wouldn’t be where I am today.

6 min version

Full version (25 mins)


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It’s supermum!

9 June 2014

Megan Sweeney was still a schoolgirl when her son Christian was born in 2006. Despite the challenges of being a teenage mum, she went on to graduate from university and forge a successful career in sales and marketing. She tells us how a Lottery-funded project for teenage mums gave her the support she needed to fulfil her dreams .

Young Megan and son

Young Megan

I found out about the Teenage Pregnancy project through my health visitor.  A lady called Heather who was involved with the project got a group of teenagers who were expecting babies together and told us about the guidance and support they could offer us.

We also did antenatal classes with her, which was great, because it meant that I didn’t have to go to classes with a lot of people who were older than me. I was with girls in a similar position to myself, so I felt comfortable.

At the time, that was such a big thing because I did feel alone and it was good to have a support network of people in the same situation.

There’s a lot of negativity surrounding teenage pregnancy. But this group was always so positive – it kept my spirits up.

Megan Sweeney and son

Megan Sweeney and son

The project played a big part in keeping us in education and keeping us motivated – it taught us not to let go of our abilities. If you wanted to make a career and a life for yourself, they encouraged you to keep going. The message was – having a child isn’t going to get in your way.

That’s how it has turned out for me. I finished school and went to university. Now I’m doing my dream job as a European sales executive for Foyle Food Group and manage customer accounts for the firm’s French and Spanish clients. I’m using my languages every day even though I’m back in Derry.

Christian is also doing great at school. He speaks fluent Spanish as we spent two years living in Guadalajara, just outside Madrid.  At that age they can adjust really easily – he didn’t lose his English at all while he was in Spain. He’s bilingual so he’s a lucky boy. I’m going to keep his Spanish up now we’re home.

It’s difficult to learn a second language when you’re older so it was important for me to make sure he learnt one at a young age. I couldn’t be any more proud of him – he’s a great wee man.


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A hero returns

6 June 2014
Captain David Render 1944

Captain David Render 1944

Captain David Render 89, graduated from Sandhurst at the age of 18. He is probably one of Sherwood Rangers’ last surviving officers and is one of the thousands of veterans who’ve travelled to the places where they saw action using a Big Lottery Fund Heroes Return grant.

After completing my officer training in February 1942 I was assigned to a holding camp in Cumberland. In June 1944, now a Second Lieutenant I was ordered to travel to Portsmouth, but was given no inkling of the purpose of my trip. It was all a mystery.

When I arrived Pompey was awash with frantic loading of equipment, men and food onto ships. I was given orders to oversee the loading of 16 Cromwell tanks on to a landing craft. So I did as I was ordered but the next thing I knew the ship was at sea! This was the start of my war. The landing craft arrived on Gold Beach on D-day plus four in the early light and the front of the loading platform was lowered.

The first tank drove off and just disappeared. It sank and all the crew were drowned. It was a terrible thing to see. I had just been talking to the chaps minutes before. The ships commander hadn’t realised that a series of deep trenches existed below the sea line so they had to move the ship to another location on the beach. Thankfully, all the other tanks were safely disembarked.

Captain David Render 2014

Captain David Render 2014

I was then given orders to join the Sherwood Rangers on D–day plus six and went into battle as troop leader on the following day. We came up against the SS Herman Goering division. Nasty pieces of work, they set fire to a church with all the villagers locked inside. How can anyone do that?

I remember going into a small church in Normandy that the Sherwood’s had liberated and there were flowers and crosses and candles that the Germans had lit. I thought it strange that we and them were praying to the same god for victory and safety.

Normandy I remained as a troop leader to the end of the war and apart from having two tanks blown from under me and a few bruises and nicks I came out the war physically unscathed. A rare achievement given that the Sherwood’s lost 59 officers from June ‘44 to May ‘45.

To go back to the cemeteries in France to see our lads is really heart-rending. We were the lucky ones – make no bones about it.

And we are lucky that we have got an organisation like the Big Lottery Fund who cares for our old soldiers, who are still very interested in keeping alive their memories and passing them on to the younger generation, who we sincerely hope will not do it again.


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Our fitting tribute to Ireland’s war heroes

6 June 2014

In September 2004 we made history when our Heroes Return programme was extended to the Republic of Ireland and allowed World War II veterans from all of Ireland to revisit the battlefields where they saw active service. Amanda Doherty pays tribute to a group of men and women whose contribution to the Allied war effort has only recently received its due.

Irish veteran wearing uniform and medals in 2014

Our Heroes Return programme has helped World War Two veterans like Pat Gillen from Cork in the Republic of Ireland, who took part in the D Day landings, return to the places where they served.

The actual number of personnel from Ireland who served voluntarily in the British Army in WWII is not known.  However, as at 31 December 1943, 43,500 personnel who had been born in Ireland were serving, not just in the named Irish regiments, but throughout the whole of the Army. (SOURCE BRITISH EMBASSY IN DUBLIN)

The announcement that the Heroes Return programme – three months after it was launched in April 2004 – was being extended to the Republic of Ireland meant that men and women from across Ireland who had volunteered for active service had their significant contribution recognised – many for the first time.

We saw this as a fitting tribute to Irish men and women who volunteered their services to the Allied Forces and who now had the chance to join with their comrades-in-arms to return to their theatre of action.

In September 2004 veterans from across Ireland joined us at Leopardstown Park Hospital in Dublin when the Princess Royal made a special visit to announce the extra funding and to thank the veterans personally for their sacrifices during WWII.

In the first year of the programme more than 160 veterans, spouses and widows from Northern Ireland and the Republic made emotional journeys to battlefields across the world in trips funded through Heroes Return.

Heroes Return is a wonderful scheme and I feel privileged to have been able to capture the experiences of many veterans who had made a poignant journey back to the battlefields, many for the first time in 60 years.

The experience of returning to those places with former comrades and sharing the memories of a key stage of their lives has been absolutely vital over the years and I am delighted that we enabled many veterans to make that special journey of remembrance.

As we celebrate our 10th birthday and look back over the impact of our funding in the past decade, I feel proud to have been involved in a programme that made history in Ireland and to have met some amazing men and women who made huge personal sacrifices for freedom.


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A week in the life of the “Tree Man”

5 June 2014

The Amelia Trust Farm was awarded £85,274 in 2010. Dave Jones is their community relations and environmental development worker. Here’s his diary of a week on the farm.

My job title is a bit of a tongue twister so I stick to “tree man” for short. (Being 5’5 I’m always short!)

Monday – No such thing as a slow start to the week. Maes Dyfan School came to stay for the week. They always bring the sunshine with them. They came armed with trowels, forks and paint brushes ready to do their bit to brighten up the site. This year the group were set the challenge of sprucing up our amphitheatre.

Tuesday – Maes Dyfan were in full swing at the amphitheatre, so I focused on other groups and volunteers at the farm. A 17 year old joined us for a week from Parc Prison on a ‘Released On Temporary Licence’ scheme. I knew he was a grafter so set him to work on the strimmer cutting back and edging all the long grass on site. I work with vulnerable young people from across South Wales delivering conservation and woodland management sessions. Today we cut and split logs for firewood to sell to raise money for the farm (oh the joys of being a sustainable charity!)

Children with ferret in city farm

Funded city farm

Wednesday – The farm is also open to the public for visits. It’s a shame that not everybody comes here to see the animals and enjoy the countryside. I arrived in the morning to find some unscrupulous types had fly tipped building waste in our entrance. Being a charity we’re grateful for donations, but gone off plaster, scrap worktops and a broken telly aren’t much good to us. So once we’d dealt with that it was back to the woods to clear the pathways around the pond.

Thursday – With the amphitheatre gleaming it was time to set new tasks for the volunteers. Maes Dyfan began to weed the main yard while another volunteer removed some old fencing ready for it to be reclaimed and reused around site (remember reduce, reuse and recycle!). I spent the day in the woods reclaiming an old gate and fixing our wood chipper.

Friday – A day of odd jobs. Maes Dyfan packed up and left so the farm was quiet for the first time in a week. As for the young person on ROTL he said his goodbyes and went back to Parc Prison. So that’s another productive week on the farm.


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