It was mid-afternoon in early December when I got the call. I was sitting at a desk in the Radio Christmas studio when the phone rings. I answer it and discover that Tom Carter, the British Ambassador to Guatemala, is calling me. He begins his call with the words “I have some good news for you”, and I immediately think that he would like to offer his support for the radio station. Both Tom, who is the British Ambassador to Honduras, and his wife Carolyn have been very active in their support of the charity and were going to record some special messages for us to play on Radio Christmas.
Tom goes on to tell me that his news is very exciting and that he and Carolyn are very proud of me. He informs me that I have been nominated to receive an MBE for my work with street children over the last 25 years. I sit back on the desk and try and take in the news. He stresses to me that I am sworn to secrecy until it is confirmed in the London Gazette and the Times at the end of the month. If I tell anyone then I would be locked up on the Tower of London!
To be recognized by Her Majesty the Queen for the work is quite an honour and I quickly reflect back on the last 25 years of work, the turmoil, the pain, the joy, the many deaths and those children who have grown into quite outstanding adults. I am brought back into the real world and the needs of Radio Christmas by a conversation with someone who would like to have a show the following week.
It was early in the morning of the 31st December that I started to receive calls and messages from people who had read about the MBE from the national press and wanted to congratulate me. It then went mad on Facebook and Twitter! I was walking, at the time, from Banchory to Aberdeen and staying with some very good friends in Scotland called John, Esther, Luke and Brianna Hughes. On arrival in Aberdeen the Hughes family met me and had heard about my award and wanted to treat me to a great Scottish breakfast. Thank you John, Esther, Luke and Brianna, it was a very special day indeed.
On my return to Amersham I discovered an email informing me that later in the year I would be invited to the Palace to receive my award by either the Queen or Prince Charles and that I could take three guests with me. I began to plan and wonder what one wears on such occasions and how the day would play out. I imagined myself sitting in the Palace chatting with the Queen about the work and her placing a medal on my chest. Silly thoughts!
On my return to Guatemala I am told that I need to return to the UK to receive my award and so quickly plan the trip back and I am thankful to a friend who calls to say he would like to cover the cost of the flight. I have now invited my sister Michelle, who is flying over form Australia, Alexis Curson, who allows us to use her home for Radio Christmas every two years, and Celia Banner who has been my spiritual mother since my early days of becoming a Christian.
The actual day begins with us arriving at the Palace, having taken the train from Amersham. We hailed a cab and I was just waiting for the driver to ask where to go, and replied in a very casual manner, “to the Palace please”. He seemed not phased but did ask why we were going there and my sister could not stop talking about how proud she was of her brother who was getting and MBE and all his work with street children.
We arrived at the Palace and, given the fact that we were obviously dressed to meet royalty, became the focus point for quite a few cameras! After passing through security we are led into the inner courtyard and then up the main steps into the Palace. We are invited to leave mobile phones, cameras and our coats (and my top hat) in the cloakroom. At this point we continue to walk up a deep red carpet where those receiving awards turn right and guests continue forwards to be seated in the ballroom.
I am greeted by a kindly-faced lady who congratulates me on the award and invites me to have a drink and to wait for further instructions. The room is decorated with large portraits, intricately painted ceilings and huge doors that seem to extend right up through to the ceiling. There are three large TV screens and a previous award ceremony is showing, probably so you get the idea of how to approach royalty, how to curtsy or bow and then how to shake hands and leave so the next person can receive their award.
About 60 people are in the room at this point and then in walk Ant and Dec, two TV celebrities who are receiving their OBE´s today. I manage to shake Ant´s hand and congratulate him and he in turn congratulates me and wishes me well. All of a sudden everyone goes quite as two highly decorated officers come into the room and explain the morning´s proceedings and begins to call groups of ten people forwards. They all march in line to the ballroom and then stand in front of HRH Prince Charles to get their award.
It is quite nerve-racking waiting in line and as the line slowly moves forwards I get a glimpse of Prince Charles and wonder if I will get a chance to talk and what he would say to me. Eventually my time comes and I give the customary bow, move forwards as indicated while someone comes from behind him and whispers in his ear. He smiles and learns forwards and places a medal on my suit. “So I hear you have just flown over from Guatemala”, the Prince says. “Yes”, I reply, “it was a long journey”. He thanks me for coming over and asks me to tell him more about the work I do with street children. It is clear he seems interested and questions me further about some of the hard things I have seen and the progress that has been made and finishes by saying that what I do is “truly inspirational”. He thanks me again for coming, congratulates me on the MBE and wishes me well. His hand stretches forward and that is my queue to shake his hand, step back, bow and then turn and leave.
The day was a very special one for me and I felt a great sense that what I was receiving this day was on behalf of an amazing team of people who have worked closely with me to reach out to children that most people consider disposable. I also wished that Jenni and Katelyn could have accompanied me as they remain a very special part of my story and work.
May I take this opportunity to thank everyone who is taking the time to read this blog, for your love, support and prayers. Some have joined the journey recently and others have been with me for over 56 years. It has been an honour to serve God and I am always amazed that I can be used to help vulnerable children and young people. Here´s to another 25 years!