“Our volunteers are absolute heroes.” Those are the words of Ian Cawley, manager of Hartlepool charity Poolie Time Exchange – and they now have a trophy to prove it.

The 80-strong group of volunteers became only the second group to receive a Teesside Heroes Awards, which is normally presented to individuals.

In what was Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation’s first ever virtual Teesside Heroes presentation, trustee David Henderson surprised Ian and fellow volunteers at Burbank Community Centre when announcing the special recognition during a Zoom meeting.

The trophy had been delivered to Poolie Time Exchange in a package with strict instructions for it not to be opened until the online meeting took place.

After opening the box and being told about the award, Ian said: “This is about well-deserved recognition – a seal of approval – for good-hearted people who are putting in a hell of a lot of volunteer hours for our local community amid the Covid crisis.”

Born and raised in Hartlepool, Ian said: “I love the town, absolutely love it. It’s an amazing place. Hartlepool has an extremely strong community, like no other.

“We’re a funny bunch, we know that, but the people here are just proud people who want to do something for the town, quite often at a cost to themselves. They just roll their sleeves up and get on with it.”

Part of the Big League CIC, Poolie Time Exchange usually exists to help get people back into work with funding through the likes of the Tudor Trust and Greggs Foundation.

When lockdown came, rather than close its doors, the charity moved to be ever more the centre of the local community.

With the support of Hartlepool College of Further Education, its ever-growing team of volunteer heroes cook, prepare and deliver 1,300 meals and food parcels a week for the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and elderly in the town.

“It was clear we were going to have to close down our usual operations during the pandemic,” added Ian. “But I thought now was the time for the community centre to take centre stage and that’s what we’ve done. There’s a lot of people here who are plain and simple skint so there’s a definite need for our work.

“I’ve got three staff who are employed to work 20 hours a week but are doing more like 60 or 70, so this award is for them and the volunteers. They are all absolutely delighted to be given this sort of recognition.”

Along with a trophy, Poolie Time Exchange received £1,000 from the Foundation to give further support to their wonderful work during the pandemic.

Philanthropic trustee David Henderson, a director at the Foundation’s patrons px Group, said: “Our Teesside Heroes awards are designed to give well-deserved recognition to unsung community champions.

“That’s the perfect description of all the team at Poolie Time Exchange, who’ve stepped forward in our darkest hour to help those most in need within their community. They all deserve massive credit.”