A Co Kerry couple who bought an ambulance so they could bring dental and medical equipment to disabled children in Belarus have been given the honorary title of "Community Heroes" at the inaugural Charity Impact Awards.
George and Mary Sugrue are the husband-and-wife team behind the Chernobyl Children International Dental Programme, and have also volunteered with Adi Roche's Chernobyl Children International for over two decades.
Each year they make the 6,000km round-trip to the impoverished eastern European state to provide dental and other medical care to children left languishing in institutions, including some 200 with terminal and life-limiting illnesses, as a legacy of the nuclear disaster which struck the region in 1986.
In that time they have also reunited children with their biological families or arranged foster carers, and the Sugrues even bought an ambulance to transport the supplies which they amass in a specially constructed shed in their own garden in Tralee.
In their acceptance speech, the couple talked about the work they do to alleviate the suffering of the children, some of whom struggle through life with profound disabilities.
"We don't differentiate with the children when they come into us. They can be mentally and physically disabled, it doesn't make a difference to us. They're in a danger zone so we bring them in," George Sugrue told the audience, before continuing: "I know these people are terminally ill, but surely they're entitled to a little bit of pain relief in their last days, so that's what we did last year. On the 13th April next year we'll be doing the same again."
Mary Sugrue added: “It’s very fulfilling for a volunteer to get involved in something like this, it’s life-changing. I hope that by giving back we can help someone in some small way, through working with the dental service or the hospice.”
They were among 118 non-profit organisations and volunteers nominated for the awards, which were held for the first time this year in Dublin on Wednesday night.
Also on the roll of honour was Derek McCabe of social justice charity Extern, who won Charity Trustee of the Year.
There were numerous winners in the Community Impact category, with Barnardos, the Golden Years Senior Centre in Belcamp and children’s disability charity 22q11 taking home the prizes for large, medium and small-sized organisations respectively.
The awards were organised by charities’ representative group The Wheel, whose chief executive Deirdre Garvey praised all winners and nominees for their contribution to society.
"These awards remind us that there are tens of thousands of good people doing good work in their local communities every day. It can be very hard to keep the work going sometimes, but the impact of it is invaluable to Ireland, " she said, adding: "The time has come to speak publicly together about the amazing things Irish charities are doing for the people and communities they serve, to be proud of who we are and what we stand for."