An ‘awe-inspiring’ couple have been honoured with a Teesside Heroes award – but swiftly dedicated the accolade to their son.
Community champions Paul and Julie Connaughton were handed the Teesside Philanthropic Foundation award for setting up the JPC Community Farm.
After fighting back the tears on learning of the Teesside Hero award, Paul singled out teenage son James for inspiring him and wife Julie to set up the farm, which caters for people with special needs.
James was diagnosed with hypertonic cerebral palsy when he was tot, with Paul and Julie originally told by doctors that he would be unable to walk, talk or do anything for himself.
Yet James has proved the doctors wrong thanks to the determination and dedication of his parents, taking part in a range of activities.
“Everything we have done has been inspired by James and so he is the real hero in my eyes,” said businessman Paul, 52.
“My son is the most inspirational little boy. He can’t communicate but he smiles and he’s happy. I was a man who used to worry about things that were never going to happen.
“I used to be a real worrier but he has brought out something extraordinary in me. He has made me realise that anything is possible. I reach for the stars because of James.
“He has turned me into a totally different person. I can’t thank him enough for that. I wouldn’t change him for the world.”
Thinking of his long-term welfare prompted his loving parents, who live in Maltby, to go the extra mile for James and other young adults with special needs through the farm project.
They wanted to ensure that he was able to live in a safe and loving environment when they were no longer able to look after James.
“I love what I do – I’m like a kid in a candy store,” Paul added. “I just want to make a difference to families. It’s as simple as that.
“What we are putting together will be something that the whole of Teesside can be proud of because it will be really impressive. And that’s down to James.”
They were contemplating selling the family home to turn their dreams into a reality but were backed by investors and the 23-acre Thorn Tree farm, just outside Stokesley, was purchased in March.
Now work is under way to convert the farm into top-notch accommodation for 23 young people, all with individual needs. Also at their disposal will be a petting farm, horticultural music therapy garden, adapted play area and hydrotherapy pool.
As well as attracting investment, to fund the initiative, the Connaughtons staged a car show and gala dinner at Wynyard Hall raised more than £50,000 and now plans are in place to develop similar projects across the country.
To mark their Teesside Hero award, they were handed a cheque for £1,000 by Terry and Heather Forman of Teesside Philanthropic Foundation patrons Forman Vehicle Services and will use the money to develop the farm facilities.
They were nominated for the Teesside Hero award by friend James Smith who said: “Looking after and raising a child with special needs and James’ sister Abi whilst holding down full-time jobs already qualifies you for hero status in my opinion. But what Paul and Julie have achieved over the last three years is truly remarkable and inspirational.
“To have the courage to stand up and make that commitment to create the farm after everything they had already been through is awe-inspiring.
“Although the project is in a relatively early stage, what Paul and Julie have achieved so far is truly remarkable and they deserve to be called Teesside Heroes.”