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HEART OF GOLD Euromillions winner Frances Connolly honoured after donating thousands to help vulnerable

The grandmother was brought to tears at Derry's Guildhall as she heard how her and husband's kind cash from their Ulster charity made a difference to those battling pandemic

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Frances Connolly with Mayor and crrl barr

Frances Connolly with Mayor and crrl barr

Frances Connolly with Mayor and crrl barr

She has a heart of gold that matches her bank balance.

But Co Tyrone-born Euromillions winner Frances Connolly doesn't believe she deserves the praise for helping the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland during the Covid crisis.

After donating tens-of-thousands of pounds to food banks, schools, care homes and community projects across Co Derry and Tyrone, the 55-year-old jackpot winner was honoured at a special council reception last week.

The grandmother - who scooped £115 million in Northern Ireland's biggest ever lotto win two years ago - was brought to tears at Derry's Guildhall as she heard how her and husband's kind cash from their Ulster charity made a difference to those battling the pandemic.

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Frances and Paddy pop the champagne after their incredible win

Frances and Paddy pop the champagne after their incredible win

Frances and Paddy pop the champagne after their incredible win

School equipment, food parcels and PPE were among the many items the Kathleen Graham Trust - named after her mum - had supplied to those at the coalface of Covid.

After receiving a special glass plaque accolade at the Derry City and Strabane District on Tuesday night, the humble multi-millionaire only had praise for others - and vowed to continue and extend her charitable work right across Northern Ireland.

And in an exclusive interview with the Sunday World, she paid a heart-warming tribute to those on the ground throughout the crisis - and gave a special mention to the man who has helped give away half of a nine-figure fortune.

"My husband Paddy is the difference with me you know," she said. "I couldn't give away the amount of money I give away without his tacit consent at least, it's his money too.  

"We are married 30 years this year and I love him more now than when I met him. Just total partnership.

"I work with the businesses and he helps with the charities, he doesn't take a front seat but he helps in the day-to-day business doing things.

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"He supports everything I do, he's as proud as punch of me and he makes no big decisions without me. He makes my breakfast every single morning.

"In fact the other day, my little granddaughter, who stays with us, I like to get up with her and get her breakfast and I said to her, I'm just going out to make mine and she said, you can't cause grandpa's not down to make it for you.

"No matter what time I get up, I wait to he gets up and he goes and makes my breakfast. He is just an amazing man. I've had the life of a princess my entire married life."

Last week, Paddy was by Frances' side as she received a special glass plaque from Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council Graham Warke.

The civic reception was proposed by Strabane independent councillor Raymond Barr who told how just a week after the pandemic struck, the community was left "speechless" by the Connollys' kindness.

"I got a phone call on March 21, 2020 to tell me someone wanted to make a donation to the Strabane against Covid effort," he said.

"I had just agreed to help coordinate the food bank for Strabane Community Project who were the lead partner in the effort, the donation was coming from Frances and when I heard the amount I was speechless.

"We would have had enough to buy three ventilators such was her generosity.

"We actually tried to source ventilators through a local man working in China but due to logistic and operational issues we had to abandon that idea.

"We then focused on the food bank which was very short on supplies and after that there was numerous needs that we were able to address through the generosity of Frances - for example PPE, masks and gloves from China which were in short supply and which were distributed to local care homes, sheltered accommodation, health care workers, elderly members of the community and Altnagelvin Hospital. We acquired sewing machines and cloth cutters for a local group set up to manufacture PPE for local schools etc, donations were made to the Koram Centre and Strabane Health Improvement Project to enable counselling sessions.

"A teddy bears picnic was also organised to give the kids much-needed respite and Frances' generosity didn't end there.

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Frances Connolly dons the Mayor’s robes while sitting in his chair

Frances Connolly dons the Mayor’s robes while sitting in his chair

Frances Connolly dons the Mayor’s robes while sitting in his chair

"There was tablets delivered to nursing homes and hospital all over NI to allow families to communicate with loved ones, donations were made to communities in Sion Mills, Portrush and Castlederg on top of the donation made to us in Strabane. Vouchers were also presented to scores of volunteers who helped in the fight against Covid.

"Now through the Kathleen Graham Trust, this lady - who certainly didn't forget her roots - is carrying out a lot of positive work among communities far and near, work that largely goes unnoticed."

Councillor Barr added: "I was delighted to request the Mayor host a mayoral reception to allow the people of the district to say a heartfelt thank you to a very civic-minded and generous daughter of the area."

After being honoured in a ceremony surrounded by her family and those she had helped, Frances said she felt unworthy of the praise.

"Do you know, I never expected it," she said. "I've only just been allowed the opportunity to do whatever anyone else would do in the same circumstances.

"It's a bit embarrassing really because you don't feel worthy of it.

"When all you have done is given some money, you don't really understand what it means to people. You aren't at the coalface.

"The thanks needs to go to all those people who were at the coalface during Covid.

"Last night we met some of those people in those projects who we had given money to, and when they explained the difference that we made, it really moved me.

"I was in tears half a dozen times throughout the night. It was amazing to hear what people were able to do and I think because we didn't wait to be asked for money and we just gave it.

"One of the ladies from the Strabane project she said they were being asked to do all this stuff to help people, but all the government agencies shut down, there was just no one there to help them.

"And our offer of help came out of the blue and it really came at very good time for them and it was so nice to hear that from them.

"Trying to keep a low profile, you don't actually get to hear that feedback," she said.

"(Donations went to) Strabane, Derry, Sion Mills, Castlederg, all that area and we tried to get stuff to people in Belfast as well, but we couldn't really find the projects.

"There was so much going on at Belfast at that time they didn't really need us, and we were just starting so we weren't aware of other things happening across Northern Ireland.

"It was the food banks, the parcels that went out, we bought tablets for old people's homes and care homes, we bought PPE from China for hospitals, we bought sowing machines for a project that was making healtcare workers protective clothing.

"We bought computers for schools whose kids couldn't access online learning. We bought as much as we could. The first batch was within the first week of Covid."   

The Connollys' 2019 New Year's Day windfall was the biggest ever EuroMillions win in Northern Ireland. National Lottery operator Camelot said at the time it was one of the biggest giveaways it had seen. After matching all numbers, the couple wrote a list of 50 friends and family members who they wanted to help.

Since then they have extended their generosity in various ways, including setting up two charitable foundations - the Kathleen Graham Trust in Northern Ireland, and the PFC Trust in County Durham, where they now live.

Instead of kicking back and putting their feet up, Frances has revealed how the couple have worked "harder than ever".

"I have never worked so hard in all my life," she said. "We've been giving money to businesses to keep people going, we've increased our own businesses to keep people in jobs and we are ploughing any profit that's made back into increased jobs in the area at home.

"We've got the charity over in England and the charity in Northern Ireland and it's nearly a full-time job doing that. All of us moved house, me and the girls who have their own projects, getting all that.

"Some mornings I am up at 6.30am trying to get my emails done before I start the day. I suppose whenever you sit and think about, I think I was always going to give most of it away.

"I had a list of people I knew I was just going to do with it. We've had the holidays, we've had the cars, we've had the jewellery, we aren't selfless that way. We've enjoyed our money; we have a lovely home." Frances added: "There's a window in my house that looks out on my garden and it's in the hall upstairs and every morning I get up I have a wee chair there and I sit and look out, and I remind myself every morning how lucky I am to be there.

"I've always had the philosophy that there should be no procrastination.

"If you have something to do, just do it, find a way.

"Since Covid I have been trying so hard to make everyone see how important that is. Life is too short; we could be gone tomorrow.

"Your capacity to do things is much higher (when you win the lotto) but I've been doing voluntary work since I was nine years old.

"Helping neighbours, helping friends, working with the St John's Ambulance. I've always done it and I will always do it and my capacity to help now is obviously a lot more. I'm just doing the same things I have always done but now on a larger scale."

Asked how she kept her feet on the ground with her bulging bank balance, the wealthy grandmother said: "I don't think money changes you; it has to be in you.

"I think it sometimes frees you to be who you are. I think that's how I feel, I don't feel I have changed who I am.

"My daily life has changed, we are who we are, and I think that's the same for everyone else, it just has to be in you.

"I'm retiring in five years; I'm going to work really hard for those five years and I hope what work needs doing, will be done by then hopefully.

"Just enjoy life, enjoy my family. I'm making my husband retire as well. My husband would keep going for ever."

As she jetted back to her home in England with Paddy, Frances said she hoped to return to her home place very soon and extend their charity work.

"We are able to a lot more project-wise in England because I am there to push that and because I've lived in England for all of my adult life, most of my contacts are over there and it's not that my contacts over there are any less able, it's just that I am not there to drive it.

"There's not the same need to be fair, in Northern Ireland there is a lot of people doing the projects, so they only need a little bit of help from us.

"After New Year's Day, where people were fed up, depressed with Covid, we started a sponsored project called You Change Lives 25 because young people who care for their family and friends on average work 25 hours week unpaid looking after people and they get no respite.

"We raised £50,000 across the whole of Hartlepool to lots of groups, a 24-hour activity thing, families doing sponsored runs, there was all sorts.

"We raised it to buy a caravan and then we bought another one. The idea behind it was that the spirit of people during Covid was incredible.

"Paddy and I could have bought two caravans no bother, but we would have lost that community involvement.

"Next year, possibly at Easter, we are going to do the same thing in Northern Ireland and we are going to try and revive that Covid spirt.

"We have the Dunkirk spirit in England, we have the Covid spirit in Northern Ireland and it highlighted the hearts that people had, the shared experience of covid actually transcended the horrible history we have here and that sectarianism.

"Nobody asked what religion you were before we gave them PPE, everyone got what they needed, and every community helped every community and we are going to do that again."

p.devlin@sundayworld.com

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