Ahoghill lads hit the back of the net with fundraising efforts

Some of the Ahoghill Thistle FC members with Jackie Fullerton at the recent Jingle All The Way Recognition Event in the Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena
Some of the Ahoghill Thistle FC members with Jackie Fullerton at the recent Jingle All The Way Recognition Event in the Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena

The Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice provides a wonderful service to some of Ulster’s sickest youngsters, with very limited government funding. One local football team explained why they decided to support this inspirational charity by holding a Gala Ball - and told us why they’re already planning a re-match...

Just before Christmas, social media was saturated with the dulcet tones of famous Ballymena son Liam Neeson, as he urged everyone to support the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice Jingle All the Way by getting on board with various fundraising efforts.

But a couple of miles down the road, one local sporting team proved they didn’t need the encouragement of any movie action hero to get on the ball when it came to helping some of the bravest little children in Ulster.

Last October, the guys at Ahoghill Thistle Football Club ‘joined the jingle’ and raised over £4,000, thanks to their first ever Gala Ball, which they hosted at Galgorm Resort and Spa.

Their efforts contributed to the whopping £69,454.09 that was raised by the Ballymena NI Hospice Support Group Jingle team as a whole, every single penny of which went towards providing infants, children and young people living with life-limiting and life-threatening illnesses with specialist palliative care.

Every year, it costs approximately 3.8 million pounds to provide Children’s Hospice services, both at the hospice and in the family home. The charity relies heavily on the support of the local community to help fund its services, so the efforts of the lads at Ahoghill FC were deeply appreciated.

Club Secretary Gary Peacock explained why the team felt so moved to join the fundraising campaign - and revealed how one little boy in particular managed to steal all their hearts.

“As a football club we’re always asking people for money and sponsorship, so we thought it would be nice to show that we’re a bit more than just that, and how we wanted to give something back to charity,” he told us.

Together with Club Manager Stewart McDonald, Gary visited the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice facility in Newtownabbey, and after just a few steps inside the door, they knew at once this was the charity they wanted to support.

“It was just mind-blowing,” he admitted.

“We’re all so blessed to have healthy kids, but there are those people with less fortunate children, and we felt we wanted to help.”

The Ahoghill lads’ heart strings were tugged further when they met a very special little boy at the Jingle launch last year - nine-year-old Sam McBride from Newtownabbey, whose mum Elaine is originally from Ballymena, and takes her son back to the Co Antrim town to visit family and friends regularly.

Sam lives with a rare form of epilepsy, cerebral palsy and a condition called Blind Sight, and is fully dependant on the NICH for all his needs.

Ahoghill FC took him under their wing, and Gary admits that Sam is now “kind of like our team mascot” - if not an honorary team member himself!

“We bought him a wee kit and everything for the night of the Ball, and we’ve also got him a new tracksuit ordered,” he said, adding: “Sam is very much part of our club now.”

With Sam and children like him at the forefront of their minds, the Thistle boys were determined to organise an event that would be a huge success in raising vital funds to help support the services the Children’s Hospice provides.

And their Gala Ball at Galgorm proved to be just the ticket.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Gary explained: “There isn’t any other football club I’m aware of who has ever done anything like this.

“We wanted to do something that was kind of unique, and put it out there, and let people know we’re here to give something back, rather than take all the time.”

Pulling off such a major event was no small task, but the Club were delighted with how it went.

“It was fantastic; it was a bit scary at the start, because I was worried there would be something we hadn’t done, or something we had missed, but it all fell into place,” he said.

But the Cullybackey man has insisted that this year’s Ball - already booked for October 26 at the Galgorm Resort and Spa once again - is “going to be bigger and better.”

“We had 120 people in attendance last year, so I’d like to up that to about 200 this year, and we’ve booked a bigger room,” he adds.

Elaine McBride confirmed that the Club’s support for all the children at the NICH was “priceless.”

She said: “I helped out with the odd collection in the town, and a couple of years ago Sam and I were asked to help with the Jingle.

“I joined the Ballymena NI Hospice Support Group and we’ve been working together ever since. The boys at Ahoghill Thistle met Sam at our Jingle launch and the connection they had was instant.

“We attended their Gala and I was able to talk to those present about the importance of their fundraising and how it helps families like mine.”

She added: “The NICH provide us with much needed respite, which allows us to recharge and take a breath from the routine of medication and appointments and allows us to be ‘us’ for a few days.

“We would be lost without this break, we know our boy is being cared for by the best, and is safe, happy and loved. Thank you NICH.”

The organisation’s CEO Heather Weir said that the efforts of everyone in the Ballymena area had been “outstanding”.

“Once again, Ballymena have excelled in Jingling All The Way,” she told us. “Their energy and enthusiasm have captivated the imagination of so many people, and not only raised crucial funds for Children’s Hospice, but raised the profile of the complex care needs of the children we support.

“I am so grateful to each and every one for the hours of effort given to Hospice in terms of planning and the execution of the Jingle All The Way campaign.”

The Ahoghill lads recently launched their new NI Children’s Office Board at their home ground, and have pledged to continue supporting this worthwhile charity, ahead of this autumn’s Gala Ball event.

Gary added: “Working along side NICH and seeing the care that’s provided to these wonderful children through the money we can raise means much more to us than a game of football.

“I for one am immensely proud of everyone at our Club for what we’ve achieved, and I’m excited at the prospect of building our relationship with the Hospice in the years to come.”

He added: “Sam, you’re an inspirational young man, and just to see you smile knowing what you go through on a daily basis makes everything we do worth while.”

Follow Ahoghill Thistle FC on Facebook for more updates on their fundraising as the year progresses.

NICH,their Jingle campaign - and why they need your help

l Jingle All The Way was officially launched across Northern Ireland in September 2018 as NI Children’s Hospice’s first dedicated fundraising and awareness Christmas Campaign

l Its aim was to raise awareness, recruit new volunteers and raise much needed funds for the delivery of compassionate, specialist palliative care for life limited children and their families

l Just £35 will provide one hour of care

l Since NI Children’s Hospice opened the doors of Horizon House in 2001, the 10-bedded unit has only ever had five or six rooms opened at any given time. Horizon House now has seven rooms open, and aims to have 10 in the next three years. Jingle All The Way will help to do that

l Today, NICH cares for over 350 babies, children and their families