Popular community leader Tony Kirk has dedicated his Teesside Hero award to the late Brian McGowran, the next-door neighbour who inspired him to take up voluntary work.
Tony admits he did little in the community work until attending Brian’s funeral five years ago, where he was inspired to take up the mantle after hearing about his friend’s extraordinary work.
“I had known Brian for many years as a great neighbour but not once had he told me about all the time he dedicated to volunteering to help others.
“For many years he had been an integral part of taking up to 2,000 pilgrims on annual trips to Lourdes in France and was renowned for his incredible work. I was totally taken aback and thought ‘Why don’t I do more?’
Tony now dedicates long hours to helping to organise an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes for hundreds of Catholics in the Middlesbrough Diocese.
He also volunteers at the Middlesbrough Catholic Fellowship for those with physical and learning difficulties and organises an annual Christmas dinner for people across the town.
As a result of his generous endeavours, a shocked Tony received a Teesside Hero award from charitable movement Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation.
Foundation patron Nick Mack, managing director of Macks Solicitors, made the surprise presentation to Tony at a meeting of the Fellowship’s weekly youth club.
Along with a trophy, winners receive £1,000 for a Teesside good cause of their choice, with Tony choosing to share the cash between the Lourdes Pilgrimage and the Catholic Fellowship.
As head brancardier, Tony gives more than two months of his time each year to the Lourdes pilgrimage, with planning and logistics of a taking around 100 sick pilgrims to France falling largely on his shoulders.
Tony leads a team of about 50 male helpers – known as brancardiers – who spend a week caring for the sick and disabled at the hospital in Lourdes.
He said: “I’d gone to church all my life but until the day of Brian’s funeral I had no idea what a brancardier even was and had never been to Lourdes.
“I went to Lourdes for the first time in 2009 and was transfixed by the place, as well as the way all those volunteers come together to help the sick pilgrims.
“I’ve been there every year since and want to repeat the experience on an annual basis for the rest of my life.”
Having got involved in the Lourdes pilgrimage, he then volunteered to help out at the Catholic Fellowship’s twice-weekly social meetings for local people with physical and learning difficulties.
“I went along once, fell in love with it and wouldn’t dream of stopping,” said Tony. “It’s an amazing place.
“Just like the pilgrimage, an awful lot of effort goes into it behind the scenes from a lot of great people. I’m stunned and humbled to receive a Teesside Hero award because it could have gone to any one of those volunteers who give up so much of their time to help others.”
On Monday, December 29, Tony and fellow volunteers will host about 70 local people for a free Christmas dinners as part of an annual Christians Together event held at the Salvation Army citadel on Southfield Road, Middlesbrough.
Tony, who also slept rough for the night as part of the Big Tees Sleepout earlier this year, said: “It’s another wonderful event that I love to be part of as it brings together people from all backgrounds to enjoy a Christmas lunch and a sing-song together.”
Fr Paul Farrer, who nominated Tony for his award, said: “Tony’s a very unassuming man who immerses himself in voluntary work for the local community. He is a great leader who brings people together by his example and easy temperament.
“Since being inspired by Brian McGowran, he has had a complete change of lifestyle but he loves it and is determined to do the right thing, even in the face of occasional gentle criticism.”