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WATCH: Highland Heroes 'heart of gold' volunteer of the year winner: 'It's just the right thing to do'

By Hector MacKenzie

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Michael O’Neill was already considered a local hero with “a heart of gold” to folk in Easter Ross thanks to his dedication to helping those in need.

And now he has officially become a Highland Hero too after scooping the Volunteer of the Year award – one of two categories he was nominated for on the night.

The category was sponsored by the Cairngorm Group.

As well as being a First Responder and establishing Alness and Evanton First Responders ‒ now called Emergency Community Rescue – seven years ago, Michael also volunteers his time to almost anyone who needs it; whether that’s in his own community delivering water bottles when the mains are cut off or delivering groceries in bad weather. He also joined the aid effort following last year’s Turkish earthquake.


Also a finalist in the Emergency Services category, he told us: "It was very unexpected because none of us do it for the sake of getting awards or anything. We do it because there's a need out there that needs to be filled. That's why we do it.

"I was shocked and quite humbled because there are so many other worthy people out there who do much more than I do. Winning it – I just wasn't expecting that at all."

He said: "Somebody has to step up. It’s just the right thing to do. And I hope because I’ve stepped up, I’ve inspired and encouraged others.”

One of his nominations said: “He goes above and beyond for all the local community organisations by providing first aid, and being there to help them raise funds, especially for The Place, which is a child safe hub in Alness.

“Michael has an absolute heart of gold, and never puts himself first. He is always there for everyone and everything. He was even Santa for the local school because he couldn’t see them doing without. Michael deserves recognition for all the hard work and dedication he gives everybody.”

It was when calling an ambulance for his late mother in the Inverness area a few years ago that he started to wonder how the service would cope in a more rural area if really stretched. Making enquiries and speaking with the ambulance service, he identified a need in that area of Easter Ross and set about the hard task of fundraising for and setting up a First Responder service.

It's value has been widely recognised in the area and the level of support on the night was clear for all to see.

Michael O'Neill won the Volunteer Award sponsored by Cairngorm Group. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Michael O'Neill won the Volunteer Award sponsored by Cairngorm Group. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Asked about the payback for volunteering time and effort, he said: "There's a lot of people who are alive because of the team. Had it been 100 people or one person it's very rewarding to see someone that you know that probably wouldn't be alive but for what we did. So all the hassle of getting it set up has been really worth it."

Having lived in Inverness and further south, he sees the supportive Highland community as one of the area's precious strengths: "I honestly don't think I'd move away now. See when the chips are down, they just come together. The whole area just stops and helps."

Charlie Grant, Michael O'Neill and David Ridgeway, Ambulance First Responders. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Charlie Grant, Michael O'Neill and David Ridgeway, Ambulance First Responders. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Cairngorm Group joint managing director, Chris Dowling, said: “Volunteers play a hugely important role in our communities, often providing vital support and services that truly make the lives of others better. So many people would really struggle without the support of volunteers.

“They make a huge difference to communities but are often unsung heroes who generously give up their time for others without looking for thanks or recognition.We want to show our support for the many volunteers in our community and we’re delighted to sponsor the volunteer of the year award. We encourage everyone to get behind Highland Heroes and vote for the incredible volunteers that so generously donate their time and energy.”

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