ON Christmas Day, dozens of children in need across Omagh will wake up to the most magical arrangement of cuddly bears, games and toys – and all thanks to Santa’s little helper, Jill McElroy who was determined to ‘give something back’ to a community who helped her during her darkest hours.
Many would agree that Jill, who is from Newtownstewart, has a heart even bigger than St Nick’s sleigh-load of presents, but what makes this even more amazing is that the 30-year-old has faced some of the toughest times imaginable during her young life and despite this, her spirit has been bruised but never broken.
When our sister paper, the Ulster Herald, posted a status calling for our local Unsung Heroes, Jill’s name popped up again-and-again, and today, the mother-of-three has bravely spoken out about her personal story and what drives her passion for charity work.
“It all started many years ago, before I married my long-term partner, Andrew,” Jill (née Cochraine) reflected. “Andrew was told by doctors that he had cancer; a brain tumour. He underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but his health continued to spiral downhill.
“Then, doctors gave us the most devastating news that he had just months to live. It was an extremely tough time for us; there was so much uncertainty, confusion and tears.”
With their lives in tatters, Jill decided that she would wed Andrew before he died – and the pair managed to plan their special day in just three months with the invaluable help of the community.
“Andrew was on his death bed but we were able to have our wedding,” Jill said.
“However, somehow, incredibly, he beat the odds. Somehow he came through the very worst of it, and he is still with us today.”
But as time passed, Jill found herself crumbling under the weight of working full-time, while looking after Andrew and their three children – one of whom has special needs – and volunteering for a charity in Dromore, County Down where they were all living at the time.
Jill so desperately needed help, so she decided to move back to Tyrone and brought her family along with her.
“I was struggling, and felt that I really needed to live closer to my parents for the extra help,” Jill said. “I had tried to take my life a number of times as I just couldn’t cope anymore. But it was the love for my children, my family and the support given by the community that kept me here.
“I managed to pull myself together, and now it is my aim to help others. I have seen first-hand how life can turn so bad within just a couple of minutes.”
This year, to help impoverished families across Omagh, Newtownstewart, Strabane, and even Derry, Jill has organised a special toy and hamper collection.
The collection sees her driving out to the homes of people donating the toys and hamper goodies, before wrapping them up and then delivering them to the homes of the most in-need.
“There are no words that can describe just how much it means to me to help others,” Jill said. “There’s no better feeling of thinking that someone is going to have a really special Christmas this year because of the toys and hampers; it’s overwhelming.
“Doing this is my way of saying a massive ‘thank you’ our amazing community: They were there for me when I needed them, and now I am going to be right there for them too.”
Jill is currently living in Newtownstewart along with Andrew and her beloved children, Alexander (10), a pupil of Newtownstewart Model PS, Sophia (8), who attends Gibson PS, and Noah (4), who goes to Care Bears Community Playgroup, Newtownstewart.
Fantastically, Andrew’s tumour is stable and the family are hoping that in a year or two, he will be strong enough to receive treatment to shrink the tumour.