Hidden heroes

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Teenagers get a bad press, all too often branded tearaways, truants and troublemakers. But, belying the stereotype, young winners of the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Award have shown outstanding courage and selflessness against the odds. Elaine Williams hears their remarkable stories

Windsor high school, Salford, has become hardened to bad publicity. Boarded up, leaking, lacking the most basic resources, it stands gaunt, a picture of dereliction bang in the middle of the notorious Ordsall and Pendleton estates, where social deprivation and the crime and violence that go with it are endemic.

Gang warfare is rife and recent weeks have brought more shootings, one in the neighbouring pub, one at the back of the school, when a man was killed. Pupils witnessed both incidents. It's a hairy place to live and work, easy to write off, easy to despair about, not somewhere you'd expect to find good news.

The local education authority wants to close down Windsor high, ostensibly to mop up surplus places. But Bernadette Ardern, head for the past four years, has soldiered on, creating her own good news should anyone care to notice, taking the school out of special measures, improving exam results and dramatically reducing the number of exclusions. And now she has John and Lee.

In contrast to the fate of Damilola Taylor, the schoolboy who in November lost his life on a similarly deprived estate in south London, theirs is the story of a life restored. John Thelwell, 14, is not the sort of boy to be singled out as remarkable. He is neither clever nor particularly wicked, although, like many other local children, he spends time out of school raking around the streets. But he has achieved more than most of us will ever achieve. He has saved a life.

An afternoon spent racing around on bikes in the local park during the 1999 summer holidays went disastrously wrong for John, Lee Hunter and their friend Jamie Branthwaite, when Lee collided with a tree stump, went over the handlebars of his bike, skidded along the ground and hit a curb. He lost an ear, punctured a lung, sustained serious head injuries and lay bleeding and dying before his two hysterical companions.

John says: "He was breathing dead weird, like he was snoring. I was crying my eyes out." But John managed to pull himself together enough to remember what he had been told about life-saving when he'd spent a day with the emergency services in Year 6 at primary school. He put Lee into the recovery position, put his own coat over him to keep him warm and told Jamie to find help. When Jamie's appeals for help to passers-by were ignored, John calmed his friend down, told him to stay with Lee, to rub his back and to keep talking to him while he tried again to get help. Eventually he managed to persuade two men getting out of a car to phone for an ambulance on their mobile.

"The hospital staff said that without John's initiative Lee would have died. It was touch and go," says Bernadette Ardern. "What pleases me is that John had the sense to apply something he had learned in Year 6." John has also continued to care for his friend, visiting him during the seven weeks he was in hospital, encouraging him once he was out. Lee was told he would be seriously debilitated for two years, but he returned to school after six months, buoyed by this friendship, although he still needs regular physiotherapy. John is extremely protective of Lee, proud that he is on the mend and eager to reveal his friend's scars to anyone who shows interest.

And the school has secured national recognition for the boys' courage. In spring 2000, only a few months after the accident, the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Award for Young People was launched. It aims to recognise and reward young people aged 11 to 18 who demonstrate "outstanding personal achievement against the odds, and selfless dedication towards helping others". It is non-competitive, so any child who meets the criteria gets an award.

Mrs Ardern did not hesitate to nominate John and Lee for the award, to the delight of her staff. Janet Simnor, Windsor's out-of-school co-ordinator, says: "We feel so proud of them. They show that there is a community spirit round here. Good things do happen at this school, but you normally only hear about the other side in the press."

Despite national hand-wringing over the fear that we are raising a generation of acquisitive and insensitive, if not downright aggressive, youngsters, there are thousands of hidden heroes out there. They may not be academic high-flyers, they may not be sporty or creative, but in their own way they are contributing to society's good.

Maybe they show bravery and resilience in the face of disability. Or, like John and Lee, they may show other sorts of courage. They may be neighbourly or community-minded. When you see hordes of teenagers streaming out of school at the end of the day it is difficult to imagine that some will be coping bravely with circumstances many adults would be thankful they will never have to face.

Every secondary school can make an annual nomination, and awards are made three times a year. So far, honours have gone out to 700 children. Entries have been wide-ranging - from a group of boys who battled with the local authority to set up a skateboarding park, to pupils who set up an anti-racism scheme in school, to a boy who cared every day for his friend dying from cancer, to a girl who showed stunning resilience while recovering from a horrific road accident.

Lindsay Mackie, director of the Diana Memorial Award, which is administered by the charity Education Extra, stresses the absence of competition, and the focus on inclusion. "Secondary schools can be such embattled places," she says, "or at least under great pressure. This is a way of celebrating what young people are - not just what they achieve. Not only can we recognise what they do, but we can give them advice and connections to carry on the good work."

One worthy recipient of the award is George Brettell, 13. He became a daily carer for his friend, Peter Falconbridge, 12, who died of cancer last spring. The two boys were pupils of Avondale school, an 11-16 comprehensive in Stockport, which nominated George for the award. They had been friends since nursery and were close, even tolerating each other's enthusiasm for different sports. Peter was fanatical about basketball, George about football. When Peter fell ill, George visited him daily, taking school work, keeping him company even when he was asleep, talking about boy things - girls they fancied, sports events - drawing cartoons together because Peter was keen on art.

George looks a tough nut with his shaved head, but he lopped off his locks in sympathy with his friend, who had lost his hair through chemotherapy. Peter's cancer was horrific. When he died the tumour in his stomach accounted for more than half his body weight, but according to Peter's family and his tutor, Pauline Warner, George maintained his cheerfulness, keeping his friend's spirits up, turning him in bed when he was too sick to turn himself. He did not flinch or turn away once.

"We were overwhelmed by the support and practical help George gave to the family," says Pauline Warner. "He knew Peter's illness was terminal but he never let him know anything other than positive, cheerful friendship." George does not regard what he did for Peter as special. He only did for Peter, he says, "what Peter would have done for me. I just wanted to make his life better than it might have been." The award, he says, made him proud, although it also brought back feelings of sadness. He hopes it will serve to encourage others.

Since Peter's death, George has raised money for Moonbeams, a charity that supports families of children with cancer, organising sponsored football games and collecting on the streets. He received a pound;1,500 donation from a businessman impressed by his story. Lindsey Mackie says the Diana Memorial Awards will tie in with citizenship studies by providing practical examples "teachers can get a handle on".

Antony Edkins, a trustee of Education Extra and head of Falmer high school, Brighton, says the Diana awards reward practical citizenship by "unsung heroes". He adds: "We should enable all kinds of children to feel motivated. Life is not just about GCSE results."

But this doesn't mean academic high-flyers are excluded. Rebecca Nahapiet, a Year 11 pupil at Archbishop Blanch CE high school for girls in Liverpool, was one of the first young people in Britain to receive a Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Award. James Taylor, her biology teacher and form tutor, says getting to know Rebecca has changed his outlook on life. "You would have to be remarkably perverse to be miserable with your own problems when she is cheerful with hers."

Rebecca has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that has confined her to a wheelchair and cut her lung capacity by more than half due to curvature of the spine caused by muscle weakness. She requires physiotherapy every lunchtime and finds the smallest physical movement arduous and painful. Nevertheless, she throws herself into her academic work with enthusiasm and ability - she has won the school's prize for academic excellence for the second year running - and is remarkably determined.

She aims to study law or philosophy and live independently. One of the great pleasures in life, she says, is to think and contemplate. But Rebecca is also a doer, and what she does outside school is far more than most able-bodied people. Despite her pressing disability, she raises money for charity, undertaking sponsored walks in her wheelchair and sponsored swims, and visits old people's homes, entertaining residents with song and improvisation.

With the help of friends, she has raised pound;5,000 for disabled facilities at school. She is a member of the Mersey Movers, a wheelchair dance group that has won national awards and is heavily involved in drama at school, having recently attended a drama workshop organised by the school in Barcelona. "Whenever you meet her she always has a smile, she's always seeking to get the most out of life," says James Taylor. "Other girls say Rebecca is the one to cheer them up. She never allows her disability to get in the way."

Rebecca says: "I love helping other people in any way I can because so many people have helped me." The award has meant a great deal. "I met Diana once," she says. "She was visiting cancer patients at Hammersmith Hospital, where I was an outpatient. She just picked me out of the crowd and came up to me. She knelt down to my level to talk. Not many adults bother to do that. I'll always remember that."

Another brilliant recipient, Rosalie Sullivan, 16, admits she never does things by halves. A pupil at Cartmel Priory CE school, Cumbria, she has always been known for her wicked tongue. She gained an "exceptional performance" commendation in her key stage 3 SATs score for English, and was predicted to get a string of As and A*s at GCSE. But she liked nothing better than to sit at the back of the class and quietly and good-humouredly take the mick out her teachers.

That was before the accident. One morning, just over two years ago, she was crossing the country lane outside her home to get into the taxi that would take her to school. She didn't see the red Citro n bearing down, but the collision threw her forward 90 feet, smashed just about every bone in her body, and left her with massive head injuries.

Her life was saved by one of her teachers, David Wilson, who was passing by and who carried out resuscitation. She also acknowledges her grandmother's dramatic contribution. "Gran bawled 'Breathe, Rosalie!' and after a lifetime of doing what Gran said, I obliged."

Rosalie was in a deep coma for 10 weeks and remained in hospital for six months. At first, doctors told her mother, Rachel, that she might never come round, but Rosalie slowly recovered. Her brain stem injuries have affected her sight (she sees double, so has trouble reading), her mobility (she is in a wheelchair), her memory and her ability to concentrate and retain information. But her humour, stubbornness and determination have returned undimmed.

Robin Webster, head of upper school at Cartmel Priory, who nominated Rosalie for the Diana award, visited her in hospital soon after the accident and was shocked by her injuries. At that time she could only squeeze his hand. When he visited some weeks later things were much different. As he left, saying, "See you then Rosalie", he was seen out with a two-fingered salute. He knew at that point she was on the road to recovery.

Since then Rosalie has returned to schooling. She took three GCSEs at Cartmel, achieving grade C in English, before going on to Barrow sixth-form college. Despite feeling frustrated at her slow progress, Rosalie has remained cheerful and uses humour to help people feel comfortable with her condition. Robin Webster says: "What has impressed me so much is that she has never lost her sense of fun and she has not let this horrific accident dull her willingness to improve."

Her mother and her teachers say they feel enormously proud that she has received a Diana award. And Rosalie's reaction? "Pride," she says, with a huge grin on her face, "is an abomination, one of the seven deadly sins."

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, has praised the awards for celebrating the "dignity" of humanity. "More volunteering is done by those who don't belong to organisations or get recognition for it, by those who are just being neighbourly," he says. "There are children who might not achieve much in the classroom, but who are doing incredible things out of school. Schools are under pressure to concentrate on activities that will boost their profiles, raise their place in the league table and keep inspectors off their backs, This award is a prestigious, high-profile way of saying that this caring, courageous quality in children is not second-class, but central to the needs of humanity in the 21st century."

The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Award for Young People is given to students aged 11-18 who have made a difference to their community or school, or who have achieveddeveloped in adverse circumstances. The deadline for this term's entries is March 2. Contact: 020 8709 9935. Email: awards-info@educationextra.org.ukwebsite: http:www.educationextra.org.uk

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