The Shire Reeve's Tale:19

Today, as High Sheriff of Belfast, I welcomed members of the Federation of Women's Institutes of Northern Ireland to Belfast for their AGM and spent the day with them . This organisation started in Stoney Creek, Ontario in 1897 and gradually spread worldwide reaching Northern Ireland in 1932, because a mother lost her baby through feeding him contaminated milk and she was determined that no other mother would go through the same trauma because of lack of knowledge.

Heartbroken, Adelaide channeled her grief into a fierce determination that no other mother should repeat her tragic mistake. In the years that followed she travelled the Country visiting lonely homesteads, and passing on her life-saving message. She realised country women could help each other in all sorts of ways, and that's why the first meeting of a Women's Institute took place in Stoney Creek.

Later (in 1915), Adelaide came to Wales and set up a branch there and now around 350,000 belong to the National Federation of Women's Institutes in England, Wales, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands – all with the aim of helping each other. In Scotland there is the Women’s Rural Institute. Across the border there is the Irish Countrywomen’s Association – All the organisations work closely together. And it all happened because of a mother's grief.

I was welcomed to the meeting by the President of the Federation Lady Anthony Hamilton, sister-in-law of the Duke of Abercorn. The guest speaker was the wonderful Janet Gray, MBE, who is blind. She lost her sight, due to a rare congenital eye disease, a form of glaucoma, when she was just twenty years old. This remarkable woman is a world champion. On four occasions she has won the World Disabled Water-ski Championships.

Janet has been champion and world record holder in all three individual disciplines as well as overall champion. In competition with sighted water-skiers, she is also one of the top skiers in Ireland and in the higher echelons of competitive sking in the UK. And yet, in 2004, she nearly died. In the course of a training session in Tampa ,Florida, she was skied at high speed into a steel ski jump in the centre of the lake, receiving mutiple crush injuries.

But Janet did not die. Not only did she make a full recovery, but she resumed her career in water-skiing, regaining her world titles and previous ranking as World Disabled Water-ski Champion. She is now with Sport Northern Ireland and Sports Institute Northern Ireland and for a number of years, President of Disability Sports Northern Ireland She was a most inspirational speaker and I asked her to sign her book Blind Ambition, the personal story of a truly great athlete.

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