PAUL Russell is an extraordinary little boy in many ways, having battled a serious disability from birth - but it is his smile and infectious laughter that really sets him apart from others.
At a ceremony during which he received an award recognising his positive attitude in overcoming adversity, Paul’s sister Suzanne said he made each and every person there grin from ear to ear within seconds of meeting him. “He lights up the room,” she said.
The 12-year-old Dromore boy was born with Apert Syndrome, meaning his finger bones were fused together and his speech somewhat impaired. Now, after numerous surgeries and thanks to his own indomitable spirit, Paul is as active as any other 12-year-old. He plays football, swimming, attends youth clubs and has even mastered the piano.
The “Spirit of Northern Ireland” awards ceremony last week saw Paul recognised among the most inspirational people throughout Northern Ireland. His “UTV and 105 Young Persons Award” is a symbol showing that people living with disabilities can be just as much a part of the community as anyone else, according to his mother Jane.
“It is just a privilege to be Paul’s mum,” she told the crowd gathered at Belfast’s Ramada Hotel who gave Paul a standing ovation as his name was announced.
“We are delighted to receive this award, but we do so, on behalf of all families with children and young people with additional needs.”
George McNeil, a family friend from nearby Kinallen, nominated Paul for the award after seeing it in the Sunday Life. He said the 12-year-old’s positivity and sense of fun made him a deserving winner.
“The nomination form had room for 150 words,” he told the Leader. “I wrote plenty more than that. Paul is such a lovely and loving wee boy. I’ve known him since he was born and he’s been through so much. What he has achieved in playing the piano and everything else is just remarkable.”
Paul’s personality has made him a popular figure in the local community where he plays an active role, said Suzanne.
“To see Paul recognised after the amount of surgery he’s had is great,” she said. “He’s amazing and takes part in everything. He sat his third piano exam on Saturday and was so dedicated to practicing in the run-up to it.”
His piano-playing abilities have allowed him to perform on television with Malachi Cush and Tina Campbell for UTV’s Seven Thirty show.
Although he didn’t quite realise the significance of winning the award, Paul was delighted to see the crowd’s reaction when his name was read out at the ceremony.
“He just loves being the centre of attention and loved meeting all the celebrities who were there,” said Suzanne. “He was in his element and brought a smile to the face of everyone he met.”
The highlight of Paul’s night was meeting one of his favourite celebrities, former X Factor contestant Stacey Solomon. The music star sang three songs before serenading Paul with a fourth tune in front of a packed audience.
“She saw him standing at the front of the stage listening so she took him up onto the stage, put her arm round him and gave him a kiss on the cheek,” said Suzanne. “He was over the moon!”
Paul received a trophy to mark his achievement as well as Specsavers vouchers worth £150 and three flights for himself, his mum and his dad Ronnie to travel to a European destination of their choice.
The Russell family extended their thanks to George and Ena McNeil for their nomination and Suzanne said she had a great night alongside her family including her mum, dad, sister Christine and very special Granda Reggie.