Local heroes receive British Empire Medals

'Shining examples' of community service presented with New Year Honours by Lord Lieutenant.
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Presentation of British Empire Medals in the Silver Gallery of Newcastle Civic Centre. Left to right: Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Cllr Rob Higgins; Medal recipients Penny Walters and Denise Speight; Lord Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear, Lucy Winskell; and a Lord Lieutenant cadet

Two women who have become local heroes have received their British Empire Medals in a special ceremony at Newcastle Civic Centre.

Council chargehand cleaner Denise Speight was given the award by the Lord Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear in a ceremony alongside resident Penelope (Penny) Jean Walters who received her award for services to the Byker community.

The awards were first announced in January as part of the 2024 New Year Honours List.

Denise has worked in the Civic since 2001. Her citation said: "She has a genuine passion for the historic listed building and a huge amount of pride in looking after it.

"Denise’s hard work and dedication is infectious which instils the same values in her team. 

"She is proactive in spotting potential issues and works as part of the building management team in making sure the building is safe, clean, tidy, and presented in the best possible light.

"During the Covid 19 pandemic Denise ensured her team adapted their approach to new ways of working, focussing on touch point cleaning, in areas of greatest need. 

"Her work without doubt ensured that key services could be delivered by other staff, who had confidence in the safety of the workplace."

Denise’s work has been recognised locally in the Living our Values awards and contributed significantly to the Council’s success when the Civic Centre was recognised by the RIBA as the North-East Building of the year in 2022.

Penelope’s citation said: "As a local resident in Byker, Penny is passionate about both raising awareness of food poverty and meeting the practical needs of those experiencing hunger.

"During the Covid-19 pandemic she cooked meals for particularly vulnerable people, in the small community kitchen and arranged for their delivery by local mutual aid volunteers.

"Penny also oversaw the management of the community centre kitchen where she continued to provide meals for distribution for over a year. This included a boxing day dinner for 100 local residents.

"In 2020 Penny kept community spirit alive by arranging VE anniversary celebrations which included an afternoon tea provided in a socially distanced way.

"Over the years she has worked tirelessly to redistribute food which would otherwise be wasted and runs sessions of bargain price food for children to eat after school. 

"She has pioneered holiday hunger projects and contributed to research for a city-wide food poverty initiative."

Both recipients received their medals from the Lord Lieutenant, the King’s representative in Tyne and Wear, Lucy Winskell.

Lucy said: “The British Empire Medal is awarded by the King to those who have demonstrated an outstanding contribution to their community.

“Denise and Penny are two shining examples of local heroes whose work deserves recognition and thanks at the highest level.”

Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Cllr Rob Higgins, said: “Denise has been a familiar and friendly face around the Civic Centre over countless years and inspired so many others through her outstanding leadership and dedication to her role. 

“Penny was described to me as the heartbeat of the Byker community. Someone whose selfless work in her neighbourhood from feeding vulnerable elderly people during lockdown to providing free meals and holidays for disadvantaged children and families has become almost legendary.

“Two wonderful women so richly deserving of this outstanding recognition.”

Both women received their medals in a special ceremony in the Lord Mayor’s Silver Gallery on Monday 1 July 2024 which was attended by family and friends.