Celebrating Yorkshire's women

The sound of champagne corks popping echoed around Leeds on a Friday afternoon last month as almost 800 women gathered to celebrate some of Yorkshire's most inspirational, talented and successful women.

I was honoured to be invited to the Yorkshire Women of Achievement Awards - held at the Royal Armouries on Friday (May 20) - as a guest of local children's author Christina Gabbitas.  Christina invited me to the awards earlier this year, only finding out a couple of weeks ago that she was actually nominated for the education award.

It truly was a celebration of girl power at its absolute finest.  So much celebrating took place, in fact, that the Royal Armouries sold out of prosecco!  Something you'd only find at an event predominantly attended by women.

I felt humbled to be among such inspirational, brave women whose work was being recognised for the tremendous difference it has made to the lives of others.

The 30th Yorkshire Women of Achievement Awards were overseen and presented by BBC Radio Leeds presenter Liz Green.  Among the guests were the original Calendar Girls - spotted early on for their distinctive black ensembles with the infamous sunflower - Welcome to Yorkshire's Sir Gary Verity, actress Gaynor Faye, writer Kay Mellor, Mike Tomlinson - the widower of iconic fundraiser Jane Tomlinson - and radio DJ Stephanie Hirst.

The big winner of the afternoon was Jayne Senior. She was the whistleblower for the Rotherham sex scandal, explaining in an emotionally charged VT how she risked prison to make sure the horrific crimes were exposed.   She was the manager of a project called Risky Business, which works with victims of child sexual exploitation, and has dedicated her life over the past 10 years to helping children.

She helped the police and the council to try and get justice for the girls who were being groomed and exploited by men in Rotherham.  She saw Risky Business shut down and even saw her health suffer due to the stress.  She battled adversity, was branded a racist, and even risked getting arrested by whistleblowing the whole scandal. But she never gave in.   Jayne won the Commumity Impact award but was also presented the overall Woman of Achievement award for 2016.

Young businesswoman Mary Benson picked up the Woman of Achievement in Business, kicking off the ceremony with a cracking acceptance speech which had everyone present howling with laughter. 
The successful fashion designer has worked with some of the top names in the fashion world including Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

In her acceptance speech, Mary reflected on a tough few weeks that she had been having - even admitting that she contemplated giving it all up because she was so skint - and was visibly emotional at the honour that had been bestowed upon her. 

Quite obviously taken aback by the whole situation, Mary didn't hesitate to describe the difficult past few weeks to the 800-strong audience with a perfectly timed expletive - "I've been fucked!" 

I've not been to many awards ceremonies, but I would hazard a guess that Mary's was one of the best acceptance speeches ever.

Christina Gabbitas, the lovely lady of whom I was a guest, also picked up an award for her work in education. Christina is amazing - I literally have no idea how she fits everything in.   She visits schools to do reading and writing workshops, carries out storytelling sessions at libraries, runs a successful national initiate aimed at getting children writing, writes her own children's books, and even recently found time to visit the United Arab Emirates for a reading festival. 

She has also released a hugely successful safeguarding book called 'Share Some Secrets' which aims to educate children about the good and bad secrets, encouraging them to speak out without fear.
Recently, Share Some Secrets has been shortlisted as a finalist for the People’s Book Prize.   The book has also been highly praised by the NSPCC and Barnardo’s, and Christina was a worthy winner of the award, if I do say so myself.

Another worthy winner was Jackie Roberts, who walked away with the Jane Tomlinson award for courage.  Jackie's daughter Megan tragically drowned in the River Ouse in 2014 after falling into the water while on a night out in York.  Since her daughter's tragic passing, Jackie has become a prominent supporter of the Royal Life Saving Society UK, becoming a drowning prevention officer last year. She has also raised thousands of pounds for the charity.

Truly, truly incredible and so emotional.

It didn't end there, either. 

We were also treated to an emotional performance by Lizzie Jones - the widow of Keighley Cougars player Danny Jones who died after suffering a cardiac arrest during a game of rugby last year.
It was emotional. It was humbling. But it was truly inspirational.

As I sat there reading about each of the 73 nominees, and the reasons they were sat there in that room, I realised all the good that there still is in the world.  We spend so long focusing on the bad - terrorism, war, poverty, disease - that we forget to look at the good. 

We forget to celebrate the people who are making a real difference to people's lives. The people who go above and beyond anything that is expected of them to put others before themselves. The people who risk everything to safeguard others. The people who don't let adversity bring them down.

It's so easy to give in when things are tough. To accept that's the hand we've been dealt and just live with it. The women I celebrated last week did not give in so easy. They fought to overcome obstacles, adversity and barriers and have become role models, trailblazers and inspirations.

In total, over £58,000 was raised for Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice in Leeds thanks to the event.  This could cover the cost of 3,656 hours of incredible care to support people in the Leeds community.

Since the awards were first founded 30 years ago, over £500,000 has been raised for the hospice.

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