From a teenage girl overcoming a severe personal disability to a firefighter working to rehabilitate child arsonists, the true champions of our community were honoured at Cheshire Learning Partnership's Celebration Conference last Friday. SELENA O'DONNELL highlights some of the inspirational stories.
GLAMOROUS Emma Murray didn't appear to have a care in the world when she picked up Young Learner of The Year at Friday's awards, her friendly disposition charming all she met.
You'd never guess she has bravely fought a frightening and debilitating condition since she was nine years old.
Emma, 19, from Newton, suffers from a rare eye condition similar to acute double vision. All of us see a separate image through each eye but optical nerves en-sure the one image comes together to form what we regard as normal vision. Emma sees two separate and distinct images at all times.
'I know that the one on the right is the correct image and that the left one isn't real, but I still bump into to things and I am really clumsy,' joked Emma.
'I was nine or 10 when I first noticed something was wrong, but the optician didn't pick up anything and said I was attention seeking,' she added. Far from being an attention seeker it's Emma's complete lack of self pity and her determination that has impressed everyone.
'She's an astonishing person. She just gets on with things the same as everyone else, in fact in many cases better than everyone else,' said Chris Guest, head of sixth form at Emma's former school Kingsway High, and the person behind her nomination.
It was only after a heartfelt pleas from Emma's mum, Janet, that she was referred to The Countess of Chester Hospital aged 13. The consultant realised there was a serious problem straight away.
Two operations were carried out just after her GCSEs. Emma and her family, including father Peter, are aware that this first stage of operations may have contributed to the unique complications in her condition.
Following each of the operations, which involved cutting and tightening the muscles behind each eye, Emma was unable to see for a week. 'The muscles were too weak for my eyes to open. Once the bandages are removed your eyes are prone to infection so I couldn't leave the house for a month. Its was all pretty gory, my eyes bled and my poor mum is really squeamish and couldn't look at me,' explains Emma.
The surgery wasn't the miracle cure the Murrays had hoped for but Emma persevered and took the brave decision to complete her A-levels.
'The teachers at Kingsway were amazing, they helped me all the way. It's such a shame its closing.
Emma and her family were dealt another blow when, in the first year of sixth form, she had to return to hospital for further corrective surgery, loosening the muscle in her left eye. In total Emma estimates she's had a year off school, with hospital appointments and treatments. Despite this she successfully completed three A-Levels in English Literature, Art and Drama.
It was around this time she was referred to top eye consultant Ian Marsh at Walton Hospital, Aintree.
'He knew exactly what it was as soon as he saw it,' said Emma. With a renewed sense of hope Emma embarked on a course of experimental treatments.
Although initially confident Emma wouldn't have to endure any further operations following consultations with colleagues, to whom he played videos of Emma's erratic eye movements, he has had to admit her condition is now likely to be incurable and Emma has surgery scheduled for the summer.
'The other doctors said they wouldn't touch the case as her condition is so rare, but Mr Marsh is determined to help,' said dad Peter.
Now studying towards a theatre studies and drama degree at Chester College Emma remains positive and displays no bitterness about her illness.
'That's the thing about Emma, you would never have a clue she has a problem. She could have easily let her disability hold her back and become self pitying,' said Chris Guest. 'But instead she's out there doing drama of all things. It really is quite breathtaking when you consider what she's overcome.'
Carers group praised
A GROUP dedicated to young people who care for sick relatives were named Community Champions.
Chester and Ellesmere Port Young Carers Project has been running for nearly four years and assists over 60 children aged from seven to 17.
'Most of them have taken on a caring role that is giving both emotional and physical support,' explains Beth Cooper, project manager. 'The social skills of some of the children who come here aren't strong - they find it hard to interact and they are usually loners.'
The school life of young carers often suffers as they struggle to deal with home problems, so initiatives at the project to offer both personal and academic development are vital.
'We are receiving on average one referral a week, mainly through the social services, Barnardo's and education welfare. Although we do accept personal referrals,' said Beth. As well as building confidence, the project provides an oasis of fun for its young 'clients'. The group are currently working on a three month drama project to improve key skills.
Beth believes parents also benefit from the scheme: 'A lot of them feel guilty - they would love to take them swimming or on holiday, but physically they just can't.'
The project receives only one form of statutory assistance from The Children's Fund and this covers just one project worker's salary. All other funding is from groups such as Barclays Bank and the Local Network Fund, plus individual contributions.
Despite continued pressure, Beth vowed: 'We are not going to give up. We are chuffed with the award and didn't know we had won it until they read out the projects name.'
Brave Sue's struggle reaps reward
FROM injured cleaner to inspirational advocate for welfare rights, Sue Kilfoyle's personal journey has taken her from the despair of disability and unemployment to being recognised as Adult Learner of the Year.
'It was a complete shock, I didn't know I'd won until they announced the award, I was delighted,' said Sue, 50, of Little Sutton, after picking up the accolade at Cheshire Learning Partnership's Celebration Conference last Friday.
Feelings of pride and achievement are in stark contrast to Sue's state of mind following a life-changing accident six years ago.
On an everyday car trip to her job as a cleaner at Velmore Fashions, Sue and her husband Pete were involved in a collision just outside Ellesmere Port Police Station.
Despite considerable pain, Sue was back at work the next day. It was only after advice from a concerned colleague that brave Sue left early that afternoon to see a doctor. She never returned to the job.
'They diagnosed muscle and ligament damage to my neck,' explained Sue.
Describing how her condition 'went from bad to worse' Sue was referred to The Walton Pain Clinic for specialist help only to be told it was too late for any effective treatment.
Sue had to face the challenging reality of life as a disabled person. But after advice from her Job-Centre, Sue embarked on training courses that resulted in a work placement at DICE Shopmobility Centre in Ellesmere Port whose general manager, Lynne Canon, nominated Sue for her award.
Tony's fire safety advice is champion
BELIEVING prevention to be better than cure, firefighter Tony Chadwick fights tirelessly to extinguish the dangerous obsessions of would-be young arsonists across Cheshire.
His life-saving work was given well-deserved recognition on Friday with a Champion of the Community Award from the Cheshire Fire Service and The Cheshire Learning Partnership.
Alongside dedicated colleagues, Tony has visited countless youngsters in their own homes after their parents, or their school, have contacted the fire service.
'They may be concerned about the kids taking an interest in lighters or matches,' said father-of-two Tony, 63.
'When we speak to them we try and find out what it is that fascinates them so much about fire.'
By meeting the children, some as young as 5 or 6, in their own environment, Tony strives to keep things as informal as possible.
He recently visited three children in the Blacon area, two aged seven and one aged nine, and shared some hands-on experience of the dangers that lie with playing with fire.
Tony attributes a number of things to the cause of the problem, believing, most importantly, that the majority of youngsters have never experienced the searing heat from a real blaze.
'It takes on average three minutes to totally destroy a room and this surprises a lot of the kids,' he said.