It is somehow fitting that I meet Willie Gregg in Morelli’s cafe - a name synonymous with the seaside resort of Portrush.
For, like the traditional treat of seaside rock, if you cut Willie Gregg down the middle, you would see the word ‘Portrush’ running right through the middle.
The Gregg family has lived in Portrush since the 1700s but this man’s vision of ‘community’ reaches far beyond the environs of this north coast resort.
Bottle washer, chimney sweep, car salesman, DJ, salmon and lobster fisherman, boat builder, hotelier, bingo hall owner, builder, bar manager, Willie Gregg has done it all in his working life but it is his charity work that sets him apart.
Whether it’s collecting milk bottle tops for the Guide Dogs for the Blind as a nine-year-old boy or raising thousands of pounds for Thai children left homeless and orphaned after the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, Willie Gregg “just does things that other people talk about doing”.
As we met for a cup of ‘shamrock tea, just three leaves’ in Morelli’s, the human whirlwind that is Willie Gregg apologises for chatting a “hundred miles an hour” but he has just received news that he has been shortlisted for the regional section of the Pride of Britain Awards.
He has just come from the bank where he sent money to a small school in Uganda to buy beds for a new dormitory, for this is the latest project to be undertaken by the Portrush man.
“So around March time I got an email from a school in Kampala in Uganda, called St Vianney Junior School.
“I imagine that they probably contacted hundreds of charities and got no response but Willie Gregg wouldn’t let them down,” he said, using the third person to describe himself.
“I did a lot of research and, reading between the lines, this was a real cry for help. Their water tank had been damaged three years ago in an earthquake. They had no money to build a new system so they did a sticking plaster, repair job on it but they were left with very, very poor water.
“Sometimes they were forced to get water from the fields which cattle and vermin were using. It really was a life and death situation, given the risk of infection.
“So, I sent them money to get a new water tank built and secured so that it won’t fracture again. That took less than a week. Then they said they needed a functioning latrine because, to be polite, the latrine was overloaded and again, this would have been a life or death situation given the infection risk. So they now have six news toilets, air vented, tiled and separated for boys and girls in the school.
“Education is SO important in places like Kampala because if these kids can’t get an education, their safety can’t be guaranteed. They are very vulnerable children.
“The authorities say that they won’t educate the children if they do not have secure accommodation so the next step was to refurbish the dormitories in the school.
“They have been a totally refurbished and then I saw photos of their bedding...”
The stream of conversation halts abruptly as Willie shudders at the thought. “So I instructed them to burn all the bedding immediately. Destroy them,” he continued.
“I have literally just come from the bank after sending money for new bedding to be bought. There was also a lack of security so we have built a perimeter wall and locked gates so the children will be safe at night.”
All of this happened in the months between March and September.
“I have never put so much effort and money into something in such a short space of time,” admits Willie.
“2018 will probably be spent raising money for books and equipment for their education.
“This was a quick fix but I will never walk way from a project I help.
“Setting up Willie’s Orphan Fund was a knee jerk reaction to what I saw after the Boxing Day Tsunami 14 years ago.
“ But that Fund is still supporting those orphans, most of them are now in secondary school or university or in employment. We have come so far from the early days of Willie’s Orphan Fund that I am now at the stage of looking after those orphans purely by offering education and well-being.
“And that is entirely down to the kind people who pay for that education and well-being through their direct debits and standing orders. 100% of their money goes directly to the education of those orphans in Thailand.”
Pausing only to draw a breath or refill that cup of tea, Willie rattles off a ‘shopping list’ of projects that he has supported or is planning to help.
Chatting about Portrush Lifeboat - a cause close to his heart - he blurts out yet another name of someone who has supported him in his fundraising with the phrase: “Oh you HAVE to mention him/her, they are fantastic”.
That’s because Willie Gregg is all about community - his community hometown of Portrush, a community of fundraisers, a global community overcoming hardships at the other side of the world.
He cites his mother Joan as a huge inspiration when it comes to thinking of others.
His staunch supporter, his mother first started her own charity work during the Second World War when she would go to the beautiful Drenagh estate outside Limavady and pick snowdrops.
Carefully wrapping them in damp paper, she would send them to London’s Covent Garden to be sold in aid of the war effort.
If his charitable nature comes from his mum, then Willie’s love of the sea most definitely came from his father Billy.
“He was the No1 boat builder in Northern Ireland, and also a salmon and lobster fisherman too. We also took hundreds of tourists out on boat trips during the summer seasons.
“Back in the early 1960s, my mother and father ran a dinghy pool down at Portandhu Harbour, it was known as Gregg’s Pool.
“Three generations of the Gregg family have been on the lifeboat in Portrush and I also raise funds for our Lifeboat crew and our Coastguard.
“Over the last two years I fundraised to buy a tracker system for the Portrush lifeboat so that families of crew can monitor the rescue and know when their loved ones are on their way back home.
“Coming from a lifeboat family I know how stressful it is for the families waiting at home and wondering. I’ve also donated a large computer screen for in-house training. Now every time the lifeboat is launched they video the rescue to be used in a debriefing session.
“I got them the screen so that can watch the video of the rescue and I am already working on raising money for a special project for Portrush Lifeboat in 2018.”
A young Willie Gregg was never far from Portrush Harbour and life has brought him full circle to his current job as manager of the Harbour Bar.
“My first job was washing Guinness bottles for John Molloy in the Harbour Bar when I was young.
“I washed hundreds of bottle and my first pay was half a crown.
“Things have come full circle and here I am running the Harbour Bar. And I couldn’t do any of this fundraising and running round like a mad man without the consent and support I receive from my employers the McAlpin family who own the Ramore complex at the Harbour.
“They are so good and incredibly tolerant of my antics.”
And Willie’s enthusiasm and sense of fun means that the Harbour Bar is a magnet not just for locals but also for a few famous faces - golfers Graham McDowell and Darren Clarke are regulars along with actor Jimmy Nesbitt to name a few.
“I really have to thank all my sporting, acting and media friends like Ivan Little, Rory Best, Michael O’Neill, the golfers and caddies and the North West 200 riders for the support they give me.
“For example, a number of years back, jockey AP McCoy gave me one of his racing jackets. It raised literally thousands of pounds for the Philippines disaster. Then there was the great Joey Dunlop who was my inspiration.
“I helped gather up nappies and children’s toiletries the first time he took the van and drove out to the orphanage in Romania. He gave me the greatest inspiration to keep doing charity work. And there are countless other people who just help to keep things moving like a local singer Ricky Lorimer who has written and recorded a song called ‘Harbour Bar’and 25% of the profits go to Willie’s Orphan Fund.
“Like photographer Stephen Lockhart for his photos, Milne Rowntree who is secretary of the Fund, David Lamrock for his videos. Like Janet and the young gentlemen of Belfast Inst who organise an annual non-uniform day for the fund; Portrush Primary School and their Art Pals project with the orphanage, like Stephen Duke’s company Identity who looks after all my IT, social media and stationery.
“Like the dozens of local companies who are so good in providing transport, gifts, accommodation, and funding; like the businesses who stock my collection boxes all year round.
“I am also now selling a print of a painting of the Harbour Bar by local artist Philip Parker. Thanks to his kindness, it has raised a big percentage of the funding for the African project I am currently working on. But the absolute backbone of my work are those people who put their money every month into a direct debit or a standing order or a collection box. I just couldn’t do it without them.”
Topping the list of those staunch supporters is “my dear suffering partner in life Stephanie Holmes”.
“She has had to endure for nearly 10 years late night and early morning calls from Africa and Thailand. It takes a special person to put up with my charity activities!”
Asking Willie Gregg when he relaxes is like asking the waves when they stop breaking on the shore.
“I do love to garden. It’s my passion. I have no colour scheme, it’s all green and it’s a work in progress. And I am dog mad! I was really chuffed to be voted Ireland’s No1 dog man, I have a Harbour Bar dogs’ club with 4,000 members.”
And with that, we are back to the all-encompassing subject of charity fundraising.
He literally can’t stop talking about helping people.
“Look, I just do things that other people talk about doing. It’s that simple.
“I am stubborn too. I’ll always stay with something no matter how hard it gets. I’ll never walk away from my projects.
“There’s no cut off time with this.
“I’m here until the end.” he smiled.