Stephen Twells was appointed to the role of chairman with Derry charity Foyle Search and Rescue in March this year, and he has been flat out ever since.
The 44-year-old Pennyburn native has taken over the reigns at a time when the charity and the demand for its services continue to expand.
As it’s profile and presence grows however, so does the challenge of raising the £110,00 needed every year just to keep Derry’s fourth emergency service running.
Now they also need £220,000 to expand their base at Prehen, and Stephen and his colleagues along with a team of local fundraisers have taken on the ambitious task of bringing the plans to fruition.
And all this is on top of his day job as a manager of Boot’s Chemist in Omagh and being the father of two teenagers, Rachel (17) and Jack (13).
As a boy himself, Stephen attended St Patrick’s Primary School in Pennyburn before transferring to St Joseph’s Boys School.
After getting a couple of A-Levels, he went straight into work for Connor’s Chemist before taking a job with Woolworth’s at the age of 19.
He moved to Scotland with Woolworth’s before returning to Derry with his wife Sharon and his young family to start work in the newly opened Foyleside Shopping Centre’s Connors Store. He transferred to Boots when they took over the store and has remained with the company for the past 19 years. Stephen said he was delighted to receive a community hero award from Boots a few years ago for his work with Foyle Search and Rescue.
But he had no thoughts of heroics when he signed up with the rescue service, nor did he realise it would become his “evening, weekend and day off job.”
“When I came back from Scotland I had always seen them about the bridge and stuff. I had always wanted to do something in my spare time to help out. They happened to call to my door one day during the bucket appeal. I got speaking to two of the girls got an application form and that was me ever since.”
For Stephen it was something of a baptism of fire. “A fellow went in to the river off Craigavon Bridge and it was probably the most frightening experience I have ever had up to then. That was my first night out on patrol after getting basic training on throw line and I found myself having to throw the lifeline in.
“But it didn’t put me off. It did shake me up because it was frightening to watch, but I came back and I have been there ever since.
“I had had no desire to do anything rather than just do the shore patrol in the duty nights but very quickly I got caught up with the pager team and boats purely because I lived close by to the shed at Oaksbridge. Our emergency response shed used to be down along the River Foyle. My first job in the charity was to to go down and open the gates for the pager team until the night one of them never turned up and I was shoved onto the boat. I was never in a boat before in my life.”
Since FS&R was founded in 1993 they have recovered a totoal of 122 bodies. They are never failed to return a person’s body to their grieving loved one’s in all that time.
A further 301 people have been rescued from the river and over 2,400 potential suicides prevented at the river’s edge.
When Stephen started there were around 25 to 30 volunteers whereas today there are around 85 volunteers, and two staff members a caretaker and administrator paid for by the Public Health Agency.
He said looking for bodies was “the hardest job in the charity” and warned that the volume of people found in distress was growing.
“We are coming into more contact with people now than we ever were before. I know part of that is we are getting better at what we do and we are out more often. The reason why someone may be there can be anything from financial to marital. Mental health is the biggest thing.”
He adds for all the seriousness of the job, there was a great team spirit at FS&R and great craic among those in the charity.
He also praised the Derry public for their ongoing “amazing” support: “We just raised £22,000 in the annual Bucket Appeal. We are always overwhelmed by the generosity the people of this city have for us. Last year we had a wee fellow that gave his First Communion money. Stuff like that warms your heart and gives you the purpose for what you are doing.”
He added: “One Big Fundraiser are probably the most exciting group of people we have worked with, They started up with the intention of raising £2,000 they have already raised £11,000 and they have captured the imagination of the town.”
FS&R It’s A Knockout will take place at Prehen Playing Fields on Sunday August 3rd.
Stephen said his main ambition for the future was to see the expansion plans realised. “Outside of that, the odd week off would be great- somewhere with a beach and no pagers!” he laughs.