A Teesside couple have been lauded for their incredible efforts supporting their local community in lockdown, during which they’ve distributed more than £15,000-worth of food and essentials for the vulnerable, elderly and others.

Whether it’s serving afternoon tea for Dormanstown pensioners, delivering medication to a local cancer sufferer or providing free meals for disadvantaged schoolchildren, Chris and Debbie Powlay are superstars of their community.

Now two local charities who’ve supported the community champions have sung the praises of the big-hearted duo, who go by the name of Ladies of Steel – Helping Hands.

They are full of praise for the way the couple, who normally run the Corus Sports and Social Club in Dormanstown, have put their spare time to good use during lockdown.

Debbie and Chris have delivered nearly 500 food parcels for the elderly, vulnerable and struggling families across Dormanstown and nearby areas including Redcar, Marske and Kirkleatham.

And Debbie, who has been manageress of the Corus Club for 38 years, admits their efforts to help others has left her tears on more than one occasion.

“People are extremely grateful for what we do,” she says. “I’ve had people say ‘I’m on my last slice of bread’ or that they have no milk. People have cried on their doorstep.

“I’m a big softie so I do get very emotional. Sometimes it’s happy crying because I see how much it means to them but other times I do come away with a tear in my eye because I’m sad for them.

“Some people are desperate, others are is isolation and are worried that they might have to go out to get food or medicines. Many elderly aren’t internet-savvy so wouldn’t know where to start with an online shopping order.

“Sadly, people are falling through the cracks and it’s been a delight just to see them smiling.”

Chris explained that an original gesture to help out a few neighbours has become an all-consuming, full time challenge.

‘’As the word spread, people started getting in touch asking us to check on elderly family,” he said.  “One lady we helped was a 96-year-old woman who had no family or friends and was having to isolate with no way of shopping online.

“A neighbour asked us to get in touch so we made up a box of food and added chocolate eclairs as a treat. She was so grateful for somebody looking out for her as she thought she had been forgotten.”

And they’ve even been delivering afternoon tea for a growing number of Dormanstown pensioners who are cheered by a delivery of cream cakes, scones, strawberry tarts, sandwiches, sausage rolls, pork pies, cheese and pickles, as well as a bouquet of flowers.

“We just wanted to cheer them up,” explained Chris. “We asked for nominations on Facebook and it snowballed. We try to make them feel special – because they are special.

Their food parcels for the elderly comprise essentials such as milk, bread, eggs, soup, peas, beans, biscuits, washing powder, soap and washing up liquid, while cereal, pasta, rice, fruit and sausages are added to their family parcels. And ready meals are delivered to adults with learning difficulties.

Each day, they pack up their estate car and head off on their deliveries – including 150 packed lunches at weekends for Dormanstown Primary School pupils.

They are supported by friends Hilary Greenwell and Becky Pierce-Pallister – both members of the Ladies of Steel charity club that Debbie runs in more normal times – plus daughter Victoria, 15, and a generous band of teachers and volunteers.

Already around 1,500 people have benefited from the Helping Hands initiative but Chris anticipates that need will grow even higher.

He warned: “We think it’s bad now, and people have mortgages on hold for three months and 0% rates on credit cards. When that stops, demand is going to be so much bigger.”

Asked why they do what they do, Chris answers: “Our parents aren’t here anymore but if it was my mam and dad who were stuck in isolation and struggling, I’d like to think someone would look after them. Someone should be doing it and no one was, so we decided to get on with it.

“And what better place to do it than here? This is home. In normal times, these are the people we know and see through work, youth clubs and galas.”

County Durham Community Foundation has funded the Ladies of Steel with two grants totalling £10,000 to support the Helping Hands project, while Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation has donated £500 plus £250 in shopping vouchers and supplies of hand sanitiser, gloves and masks.

Michelle Cooper, chief executive of County Durham Community Foundation, said: “I’m overwhelmed by what this small team have been able to achieve.

“Ladies of Steel usually run dance classes and events to bring the community together and all those years of building trust has put them in the perfect place to deliver a totally different kind of help mid-crisis.

“We are truly grateful that we have been able to offer them two grants to power their incredible selfless efforts.”

Lee Bramley, chair of the Philanthropic Foundation, added: “Along with their fellow volunteers, Chris and Debbie are true unsung heroes of Teesside. When their club was forced to close during lockdown, they’d have been forgiven for taking it easy.

“Instead, they’ve spent long hours doing everything they can to help neighbours and strangers on a grand scale. We are proud to be supporting them.”

Both foundations have worked closely together during the lockdown to identify and support many of the outstanding charitable efforts taking place across Teesside.

Others who’ve supporting Helping Hands include councillors Kerry Cauley and Alec Brown, SABIC, Beyond Housing, Anglo American (former Sirius), Teesside Community Foundation, Tesco Groundworks and the Redcar, Marske  & New Marske Coronavirus Support Team.

*County Durham Community Foundation has awarded £416,000 to 86 Tees Valley groups since the start of the pandemic. The National Emergencies Trust has joined forces with the UK Community Foundation network to distribute £80million raised through their appeal.