A Londonderry man has told how witnessing harrowing scenes at Romanian orphanages later inspired him to volunteer with NSPCC Northern Ireland.
Hugh Kennedy has just been honoured for his volunteering with NSPCC Northern Ireland at the charity’s recent Childhood Champion Awards which shine a spotlight on the organisation’s unsung heroes who support its work.
The awards, which were launched in 2016 and run every two years, recognise the valuable contribution of the NSPCC’s outstanding volunteers and celebrate those who go the extra mile.
Hugh (75) was awarded in the Children’s Services Volunteer of the Year category at a ceremony at Banking Hall, London and received a certificate signed by NSPCC patron HRH The Countess Of Wessex.
Former fireman Hugh told how witnessing ill-treated children in Romania inspired him to dedicate his time to help children closer to home who were in need.
He said: “I was part of a group of tradesmen as well as nurses and a paediatrician who went out to Romanian orphanages in late 1989.
“We arrived on the same day that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu [the country’s dictator and his wife] were shot and executed. So we were leaving Northern Ireland and were going into the middle of a revolution. People were still under communist rule. It was the first time that I’d witnessed a situation where children were not being properly looked after.”
When the father-of-three returned home to Northern Ireland he decided he wanted to make a difference to young lives and eventually became a volunteer with the NSPCC’s Young Witness Service which supports children giving evidence in court.
He said: “The time I’ve spent with the Young Witness Service has been very rewarding but also very sad at times. It is a relatively new scheme and it has really taken off big time in Foyle.
“The whole experience for children giving evidence in court is very traumatic.”
He also revealed his surprise at being honoured for his volunteering.
Hugh said: “It was overwhelming to receive this award and I really didn’t expect it. Going to London to receive it was a really amazing experience. I’m proud to volunteer for an organisation like the NSPCC.
“But I wouldn’t be able to volunteer if it wasn’t for the NSSPC staff who support me and make me feel like I’m doing something good.”
Hugh has been a volunteer with the Young Witness Service since 2001 and was the first volunteer recruited in the Foyle area after the Young Witness Service was established as a pilot in 1999.
Since then he has supported hundreds of young witnesses and their families during this time.
His colleague Mary Kelly, Administrative Officer at the Foyle office of the Young Witness Service, said: “Hugh is very committed to the Young Witness Service and takes the volunteer role very seriously. He also takes great pride in his work with the service. “As one of the first group of volunteers, Hugh is one of the few people - staff and volunteers alike - to be part of the service early on and see the changes and improvements over the years.”
Over the years, Hugh has worked closely with hundreds of families and has helped reassure young people as they prepare to give evidence in court.
Mary added: “Hugh is very aware of the fear children have coming through our door. He approaches the children and young people with a very easy, soft approach and gives them time to come around when they are comfortable.
“Hugh has a gift for being able to chat to everyone - young people and parents - to make everyone feel more at ease. The Young Witness Service is very lucky to have had Hugh all these years.”