“I’ve won things before but this just means the world to me because this has come from home, from the people who know me best.”
That was the reaction of Willie Gregg, the winner of the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural Causeway Coast and Glens People of the Year Awards run by the Coleraine and Ballymoney Times and the Roe Valley Sentinel newspapers.
The awards took place in June last year was overwhelmed at being given the Lifetime Achievement Award for his charity work in the community but most especially for establishing Willie’s Orphan Fund following the Boxing Day tsunamiof 2004 in Asia.
Willie’s award-winning citation read: “Willie Gregg started Willie’s Orphan Fund as a reaction to the horrors of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in Asia.
“In the immediate aftermath, Willie, a former fisherman himself was pivotal in gathering support for fishermen in the area, helping to rebuild boats and buy nets. He also helped farmers and people in the area as they started to clear the land and rebuild homes.
“It soon became clear that there were hundreds of orphaned children in the country and they really needed help.
“Willie forged relationships with an orphanage, Baan Tham Namchai, near Phuket and took on the responsibility of supporting the education of the children.
“And Willie has been doing just that ever since, with his vast network of supporters who have backed him in all his work over the intervening years.
“But, it is Willie at the centre of it all.
“His personality, his drive, his enthusiasm and his honest, no-nonsense approach to supporting the children, that is what keeps the charity going.
“He has organised untold numbers of fundraisers across the country and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to help the orphans.
“He has garnered support from hundreds of individuals who maintain their regular donations.
“He has the ear and the support of a massive range of local businesses, personalities and sporting stars.
“He frequently appears in the media calling for support....and gets it.
“Very few people in Northern Ireland have never heard of Willie and very few have never supported his charity. Willie has been recognised on many occasions for his amazing fundraising work and last year he won the Spirit of Northern Ireland Award.
“Recently he received a personal letter from the Prime Minister Theresa May to celebrate his work.
“Over the past 14 years Willie, through his registered charity Willie’s Orphan Fund, has raised money that has primarily been used to support education amongst orphans in Thailand.
“In Thailand education is free, but you need money to access it, and orphans are unable to achieve that. Helping the orphans off the streets and into education has saved so many lives and futures.
“In this time hundreds of children have successfully moved through the orphanage, through various forms of education and on to employment. Some have now even come back and are working at the orphanage, looking after a new generation of orphans.
“It is a constant source of encouragement for Willie and his supporters to hear how the children are progressing and thriving.
“One of the more memorable events in the life of the charity was bringing a small party of orphans to Northern Ireland. They had a wonderful time and really enjoyed meeting the people who have supported them over the years, to say thank you.
“Willie has been tireless in his support of the orphans in Thailand, from the time of the Boxing Day Tsunami to the present day. In recent years the fund has also helped a number of local young people as they struggle to cope with what life has brought them and there has also been assistance for an orphans project in Africa.
“An amazing person, it is Willie’s strength of character, his infectious enthusiasm and his dogged perseverance when looking for support for his charitable work that has created the legend that is Willie Gregg.”
Anyone who attended last year’s People of the Year Awards saw just how emotional Willie was to win the award and just how much it meant to him - indeed it takes pride of place in Portrush Harbour Bar which he manages.
Willie’s Orphan Fund is now the chosen charity for the 2019 People of the World Awards.