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Celebrating young achievers

ACHIEVEMENT: Descendants member Collette Noel presents the Kim Noel Award to Quamanie Matthews

WHEN COMMUNITY worker Margaret Noel learned that her father was ill in Barbados in September 2004, she and her sister Kim decided to go out and visit him.

But what should have been a happy family reunion turned to tragedy when Kim, 35, collapsed and died shortly after arriving on the island.

Noel and her father were devastated at the passing of her younger sibling.

Although still grieving, she returned to the UK to sort out Kim’s affairs. But in the course of doing so, she was inspired by a way to honour her sister’s memory.

Noel, from Acton, west London, recalls: “My sister had a breakdown after my mother died a few years earlier. She was getting back on her feet and was doing a childcare course. When I got back from Barbados I spoke to the staff there and told them what had happened and they were very distressed. All the children she worked with had been asking for her. They also told me that my sister had actually passed her course. They invited me and my daughter to their achievement awards at which they handed out certificates to students who had passed to collect the certificate on Kim’s behalf as her next of kin.”

She continues: “I was very inspired by the ceremony because a lot of the students on the course had had breakdowns or faced difficulties but had achieved regardless. And it made me think about how important it was to recognise that.”

DETERMINED: Descendants founder Margaret Noel with the Olympic torch in the run-up to last summer’s London Olympics

Noel decided to channel that desire into the work she did as the founder of Descendants, a charity she founded in1993 with other parents. The group, which meets every week in Ealing, west London, uses arts such as drama, dance and creative writing to raise the self esteem and academic achievement of black children.

Among its successes were performing for the Queen as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002, appearing on stage at the Royal Albert Hall with star singer Patti Boulaye and being invited to meet former Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street.

But Kim’s death made Noel want to do more and inspired by what she had seen at Kim’s college, she decided to create an annual achievements awards to recognise the efforts of young people who attended the group’s weekly sessions. Many of them turned up despite facing issues that could have prevented them from being active in the group. However, getting the event off the ground was no easy task.

“I didn’t have any money, I just had all these ideas,” she recalls. “I went to the Ramada hotel in Ealing after attending a course there and decided that that was where I was going to hold the awards. We also decided that we wanted to name the awards after Dr John Roberts CBE, Britain’s first black QC. I also started writing to as many people as I could but few people got back to me.”
Things changed after she contacted Tim Campbell, former winner of the BBC reality show The Apprentice.

“He responded to my letter and after talking to him about what we were trying to do, he said we could use his name in whatever way we could. When I told the Department of Education that Tim Campbell was coming, they agreed to give me the money that I’d asked for to host the event.”

The awards launched in 2005. Next month, the ninth Dr John Roberts CBE QC Achievement Awards organised by Descendants will take place at the Doubletree by Hilton hotel in Ealing.

Among the categories for excellence in academic achievement, arts, sports, overcoming difficulties and leadership are newer awards like the recently created Future Leaders award.

Many of the children who have been involved in Descendants over the years have been inspired to go to university as a result of their involvement with the group.

Last year, Noel was one of the people nominated to carry the Olympic torch in the run up to last year’s London Games. Although it was a big moment for her, it doesn’t beat the satisfaction she gets from organising the awards.

“It’s important that people know there are black children out there doing wonderful things,” says Noel. “Too many times, as soon as we’ve done something wrong, it’s on the TV, it’s on the radio and then the children think ‘is this all there is to us?’ We want people to say ‘Wow, I didn’t know these children could do such great things.’”
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