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An Aberdeenshire resident has been recognised and honoured by The National Lottery and Repair Shop host Jay Blades for her efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Debra Kirkness, 54, is the founder of ‘Music 4 U’, a performing arts school in Aberdeen that helps young people with physical and learning disabilities, as well as challenging social and financial circumstances, get involved with music. She lives in Newburgh with partner David. She has 2 daughters - Rebecca, 27 and Lucy, 23.
Many of the children who attend ‘Music 4 U’ are on the autistic spectrum, and have exceptional needs for timetables, structure and stability. When the pandemic hit and Debra had to close the charity’s doors, the Debra had to find innovative ways to reach out to the community and continue to provide this support.
Under Debra’s guidance, the school quickly adapted its creative strategy by running online concerts, interviews and quizzes, making videos, creating doorstep challenges, and remaining in touch virtually with all their students and their families.
As part of this Debra launched “Feel Good Friday” - each week members recorded themselves singing, then on Friday evening would come on live, via Facebook, with Debra and then showcase their performances to an audience of over 100 each week.
Debra’s efforts have earned her a lasting tribute in the local community, in the form of a bespoke bench, dedicated to her by players of The National Lottery and distinctively designed by the TV Presenter and Repair Shop host, Jay Blades.
The charity worker is one of 13 ‘Unsung Champions’ across the UK being recognised for their time and efforts, using funds raised by National Lottery players, in supporting some of the most vulnerable in communities during the pandemic.
The benches are positioned across the UK in dedication to previously unheralded individuals who have responded to the challenges the pandemic has had by helping make other people’s lives a bit more bearable, comfortable and enjoyable, just when they needed it most.
“We were busy as normal in Aberdeen Arts Centre, where we have residency, when lockdown was announced,” said Debra, speaking as The National Lottery revealed that almost half of Scottish people feel that, notwithstanding the hardships of the pandemic, one of the positives to emerge is the community spirit, with 57 percent having an increased appreciation for charity workers.
“But by the following week, we had transferred everything online. Three of our tutors had the ability to dedicate time to deliver sessions via Zoom. I had been on one Zoom meeting in my life previously – I still didn’t really understand what it was!
“We got our heads together and got it off the ground. We adapted all the creative work to keep everything going, four times a week plus online concerts, interviews and quizzes.
“The parents flooded us with grateful comments all the time. Having that structure taken away, particularly for those on the spectrum, is hard, as they need to follow timetables and need stability. This gave them that.
“They knew exactly what they were going to be doing, when and how, and the parents worked with us to make sure we kept everything safe.”
Debra also held a concert in the open green space of the cul-de-sac where she lives. She hired a stage and had two of the students from Music 4 U – one with dwarfism and the other with Asperger’s – put on a show (following social distance guidelines) for all the residents, which included supported living accommodation for adults with learning disabilities and a residential care home.
This is just one example of the actions of a few that have made life better for many and Debra joins thousands of people and projects across the UK who have received National Lottery funding in order to support their local community during the Covid-19 pandemic.
National Lottery players contribute £30 million a week to good causes around the country, many of which are supporting the most vulnerable in communities across the UK during the coronavirus crisis.
Music 4 U received a National Lottery grant worth £46,465 in 2018 which has supported the charities Music 4 Communities project. This project allowed them to bring Music to the lives of those who struggled to access performances such as those living in residential homes, care homes, respite and rehabilitation centres and children’s hospices. The grant also allowed Music 4 U to set up a Music Café for young people with additional support needs to help with social isolation and to encourage interaction and the opportunity to become involved with live music.
Talking of her bench dedicated to her by the players of The National Lottery, Debra said: “To be honest, I can’t really believe I have been recognised in this way. The first thing that comes into my head is ‘why’? I see amazing people doing amazing things every day and think ‘what have I done that is more recognisable than what they have done’, and that’s the truth.
“I love what I do, I’m passionate about it and it’s a labour of love. To be recognised like this, I can’t really find words. I can only share it with everyone else that has made it possible and makes up what we are. Thank you to everyone who plays the National Lottery for supporting our work and enabling us to share the joy of music in a time when it’s needed most.”
Jay Blades said: “Like most of us, I have witnessed inspirational acts of selflessness and kindness this year as people have adapted their lives to help others. It has been an honour hearing about the stories of the 13 people whose work is being honoured with a bespoke bench being placed in their local area.”
Dawn Austwick, CEO of The National Lottery Community Fund said: “For 25 years The National Lottery has helped make amazing things happen, but never in such extraordinary times. People and communities have found themselves facing myriad challenges and pressures but have still found the passion and drive to support each other in so many ways. These bespoke community benches are a fitting tribute and show that their incredible work has not gone unnoticed and is in fact recognised, valued and inspiring others more than ever before.”