Skip to content

Business & Economy

Stars turn out for Foundation of Light Gala Awards dinner

On Friday, October 8, HRH The Countess of Wessex GCVO, Sir Bob Murray CBE and some of the biggest names from across the North East turned out to show their support for the Foundation of Light, as the charity celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Held at the Foundation’s home, the Beacon of Light in Stadium Park in Sunderland, the star-studded evening raised over £90,000 to support the charity’s work across the North East.

Hosted by Sky Sports presenter and Sunderland AFC director David Jones, and alongside a stunning musical performance by award-winning singer songwriter Emeli Sandé, over 500 guests celebrated the inspirational stories of 16 Foundation participants who overcame adversity to live happier and healthier lives.

Guests were also treated to a special, and engaging, couch interview by Foundation of Light Trustees Sir Bob Murray CBE, Sir Tim Rice, Steve Cram CBE and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson DBE DL who spoke about their passion for the region and how sport can be used for positive change.

Over the last two decades, the Foundation of Light – the official charity of Sunderland AFC – has used the power of football to support over half a million people across Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham, helping to tackle some of the region’s biggest challenges including rising levels of obesity, unemployment, social isolation and poor mental health.

As Royal Patron of the Foundation of Light, HRH The Countess of Wessex spoke of her pride in the work the award-winning charity does across the region, “We have heard some truly inspiring and moving stories, where people’s lives have been transformed by the Foundation.

“I say Foundation, but what I really mean is by kind, caring and loving people, because this is what the Foundation of Light is built on.

“Sunderland and the surrounding areas are so very lucky to have this Foundation and tonight we celebrate every life touched, every brick built and every example of hope created by those who work within it.

“Two decades of history, and of investment of people of this region, is something to be so very proud of.”

Foundation of Light Chairman of Trustees, Sir Bob Murray CBE said “After a tough 18 months it is fantastic to share this celebration.

 “I must pay tribute to HRH The Countess of Wessex who has been our champion for the last 17 years. The Countess has taken our city and its people to heart.

“I am so proud of Lesley Spuhler and her team who continue to amaze me. They have turned hundreds of thousands of lives around and they are the best in Britain. “But the stars of the show tonight are the award winners. Congratulations to each of you.”

One of the heart-warming stories of the evening came from Josita Thirumalia, who was presented with the Aspire Social Action Award. The 16-year-old has spent the last 18 months playing an active role in her community after overcoming severe anxiety as a result of lockdown.

As part of the NCS programme delivered by the Foundation, Josita has worked with other young people to build a sensory garden for local care home residents, supported foodbank collections and is now mentoring new members on the programme.

Josita said “I am really honoured to have received this award and it is fantastic to be invited to the Gala Awards Dinner. I really struggled with my anxiety, especially over lockdown, and the Foundation have really helped me with that.

“The Foundation team gave me an opportunity and the confidence to get out of the house and meet people. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to understand how to go out and help the community as an individual and independently.”

For Scott Thirwell, seeking support from the Foundation of Light was a life-saving decision. Winner of the Murray Family Mental Health Hero award, Scott has a real passion for making positive change to local lives after he made the brave step to seek help from the Foundation when his struggle with depression became too much.

An active advocate for promoting positive mental health and checking in friends, Scott wants to share his experiences and encourages others to seek help, supporting the Foundation to deliver mental health workshops to volunteers at his local football club, Washington FC.

Reflecting on the evening, Scott said “This is a really great moment and as a Sunderland fan I am really pleased to be here tonight. All the award winners have amazing stories.

“I’ve had mental health problems since I was 17 and really struggled; a couple of times I have attempted to take my own life.

“Thanks to my family, who have been rocks and really supportive, I have been able to speak and open up. The Foundation have really helped with that too.

“Through their mental health programmes, I have been able to promote positive mental health and the support that’s out there. I’ve grown massively as a person. Without the Foundation of Light, I would be existing not living.”

The Gala Awards Dinner is the culmination of celebratory activity across the year including a very special video call made by HRH The Countess of Wessex to Foundation participants and members of staff.

The full list of award winners is:

Chloe Kirchner Harrison Centre for Social Mobility Dedicated Learner Award
Aidan & Emily Burns Sunderland AFC Shooting Stars Award
Martin Binyon Arriva Improved Ambition Award
Marco & Laura Towers Sunderland City Council Stronger Family Award
Luke Murray Barratt Overcoming Adversity Award
Kyle Ashton Gentoo Positive Change Award
Mary Egglestone HLA Services Community Champion Award
Holly Beckett University of Sunderland Resilience Award
Alexander Walker ScS Better Connected Award
Liam Arthur Sunderland College Player Progression Award
Josita Thirumalia Aspire Social Action Award
Sean Crowder Ward Hadaway Increased Confidence Award
Natalie Oxberry Livin Inspiring Learner Award
Daniel McGill Banks Determined Young Achiever Award
Scott Thirlwell Murray Family Mental Health Hero Award
Sophia-Rose Brand Grafton Group Shining Star Award


To find out more about the Foundation of Light, visit

Photo credit: PA Images / Owen Humphreys