In 1988 a National Children of Courage Award was made to a girl from the North East called Joanne Gillespie.
Joanne, just 11 years old, had endured two major operations, fighting against a recurring brain tumour. To help other children who might be going through similar experiences, Joanne used her diary of her time in hospital and created a book. The book titled ‘Brave Heart’ was published in 1989 and it received public acclaim as an inspiration to other sick children and their families. In addition to the Children of Courage Award Joanne was also presented with a North East Personality Award and was interviewed by Terry Wogan on live television. She became a national celebrity.
Among those present at the North East Personality award ceremony was Robin Alexander, Community Service Chairman for Hexham Round Table. Robin, who was so inspired by Joanne’s story, decided to initiate a fundraising appeal to establish recognition and reward for other children in the area with similar stories. The fundraising was a great success and culminated with a charity dinner at the Mayfair Ballroom in Newcastle with entertainment headlined by local hero Mark Knopfler and his band Dire Straits.
A total of £35,000 was raised and as a result, it was possible to send 22 children to Disney World in Florida. Other children whose illness or injury prevented them from travelling received gifts such as computers, videos, or other equipment intended to enhance their lives. All the children attended a presentation at Tyne Tees TV studios where they received the distinctive Brave Hearts award, in those days in the shape of a Crystal Pyramid. Joanne was among the children to receive an award.
It was apparent that the original target had been exceeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It was decided that it was too big to remain part of Hexham Round Table and so Brave Hearts was registered as a charity in its own right and Mark Knopfler agreed to become the patron.
The charity became known as ‘Brave Hearts of the North East’, and after 34 years is still providing the well-deserved recognition to young people who are experiencing very difficult times. Nominations for the award are invited from residents of the North-East of England, from the Scottish borders down to include North Yorkshire and across the country to include Cumbria. To be eligible a Nominee must be between the ages 5 to 16 years old in the year the nomination is being made. To be an award winner the nominee will have displayed exceptional character and courage in overcoming their difficulties arising out of serious sickness or injury.
Every year the charity holds an award ceremony, over recent years at St James Park in Newcastle. Here the award winners and families are invited to a day of celebration, celebrating the extraordinary courage they have displayed. They each receive their Braveheart Award, now in the shape of a crystal book, recognising Joanne Gillespie’s legacy. They also receive a copy of the original book, along with a special gift of their choice. Guest celebrities are quick to volunteer their time and come along to make the day even more special. Since that first presentation almost 700 very courageous, deserving young people have received a Brave Heart Award.
All of the charities work is continued by a small trustee board of which Robin is still a member. All the trustees are volunteers, with no salaried staff, so that every penny raised goes directly to benefit the children. Helping to put a smile on their faces.
Fundraising is a major focus for the trustees, helped by fantastic volunteers and sponsors attending one of the fundraising events, taking part in the Great North Run or by making individual donations. Without these amazing supporters the charities work simply couldn’t happen.
Sadly, a number of the children recognised by Brave Hearts have been so ill that they were unable to make a recovery. Joanne herself passed away in 1993. Brave Hearts of the North East seeks to continue their work in honour of her memory and to build on the inspiration she has provided to other children and to be inspired by a new generation of Brave Heart winners.