After clocking up 33 years’ service with a charity caring for some of the North-East’s most vulnerable people, Cath Todd has been presented with a lifetime of achievement award. She talks to PETER BARRON

AS she looks back on a long career in caring for others, Cath Todd finds it hard to believe how quickly time has flown.

“It’s gone in a flash really, but it’s been massively rewarding to be able to make a difference to people’s lives,” she says.

Cath’s “immense” contribution to the North East Autism Society (NEAS) has been recognised with a Lifetime of Achievement award, presented by TV personality Pam Royle, one of the charity’s patrons.

It was one of a string of ‘Star Awards’ handed out to staff but, in typically humble fashion, Cath was shocked to be a winner.

“I was totally overwhelmed,” she admits. “I’m not the kind of person who thinks they deserve anything because I always feel there are people more deserving than me. The award wasn’t on my radar but it’s nice to feel appreciated.”

NEAS chief executive, John Phillipson, has no such qualms about Cath’s huge value to the society: “Over 33 years, Cath has shown outstanding devotion to those in her care, and set a great example to her colleagues,” says John. “She’s an inspiration, a deserving winner of the award, and I can’t thank her enough for more than three decades of dedication.”

Cath now lives in Sunderland with husband, Nigel, and their beloved cats, Zak and Fizz – the latest in a long line of rescue animals they’ve cared for.

However, she grew up “across the great divide” in Newcastle, where her mother, Margaret, worked as a senior registered nurse and then a midwife, while her father, Ernest, did a variety of jobs.

She left Newcastle to study English and history at Sunderland University, and her first job after graduating was with the National Children’s Home, in Sunderland, working with at-risk children.

She joined NEAS in 1989 when she successfully applied through the Community Programme Government training scheme for a post as a classroom assistant. When the 12-month scheme ended, there were no immediate vacancies, so she was out of work for a while, though it wasn’t long before she returned to NEAS.

She rejoined the charity as a childcare assistant, serving for several years at a number of residential care homes in Sunderland, principally ‘Number 21’ and ‘Number 24’ in Thornhill Park.

In 2006, she was promoted to senior care support worker at Meldan children’s residential home, in Sunderland, and went on to become manager at the Brentwood residential care home, in the city, six years later.

She’s now clocked up 33 years’ service with the society, but often thinks back to her first shift as a young classroom assistant, when her understanding of autism and neurodiversity began to take shape.

“I try to remember how I felt, seeing different types of behaviour for the first time. I didn’t fully understand it then, but I do now, and we all need to appreciate that there may be a very good reason why someone is behaving in a particular way,” she says.

Brentwood is home to four young adult service-users, and Cath manages 10 staff who help them experience as many opportunities as possible, including meals out, walks in the park, trampolining sessions, trips to the cinema, theatre, shops, or the pub.

“It’s about helping them to live their best possible lives,” she explains.

The Covid-19 lockdown years were particularly challenging, but Cath believes they underlined the value of NEAS.

“I remember waking up one day during the pandemic and thinking ‘no-one knows what’s going to happen – who’s going to get ill’. There was a real sense that we were needed more than ever to care for people who were precious to their loved ones. It was a huge responsibility to know if was down to us to keep them safe,” she says.

One of the service-users at Brentwood is a 26-year-old autistic woman, who was a cause for concern during the pandemic, because she’d always struggled with medical care being administered. That meant a huge amount of time had to be spent building up her trust so she could go through with the vaccinations.

“We gradually got her to the point where she could cope with the jabs, and she’s now fully vaccinated. That gave the team a buzz because it was a real triumph,” Cath recalls.

It 's those triumphs that make working for NEAS so rewarding, and Cath has no hesitation in recommending careers with the Society, whether it’s someone just starting out, or stuck in a job where they don’t feel fulfilled.

“If you want to look back on your life and know that you’ve done something special, then I’d certainly think about applying to NEAS,” she says.

“It’s an organisation that cares in every sense, with genuine family values right from the top, and I’ve always felt well looked after as an employee.

“In return, the people who work for NEAS are so passionate about what they do. They’re not just here to pick up their pay-packets, they’re in it because they want to make a difference.”

And, with 33 years of service behind her, Cath has no plans to retire just yet.

“I suppose I’m still enjoying it too much,” she smiles.

  • To find out about career opportunities with NEAS, go to and click on ‘Join The Team’.

WHAT a pleasure it was to attend the Darlington Sports Winners Grand Final at Darlington College last week.

The event is now in its 48th year – a remarkable achievement by the evergreen Brian Dobinson and his fellow organisers.

I was especially pleased to see awards being presented to two men who have been featured on this page over the past year.

Keith Wilson, below, won the 'Inspiration Award' for embarking on an epic programme of running and mountain climbing in defiance of Parkinson's Disease.

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And ex-policeman Laurie Cummings was honoured for his record-breaking exploits in athletics at the age of 82.

There are two years to go to the 50th anniversary of the awards event, and sponsors are desperately needed to keep it going.

Anyone who can help should email

FINALLY, a fond farewell to the iconic building that is no longer home to The Northern Echo.

I spent more years in 'Priestgate Palace' than I care to remember, but times change and the Echo staff have moved across Darlington to smaller, more modern offices.

So much history, so many great stories and campaigns. It has been a huge part of my life and, one day, I might write a book about the characters, triumphs, disasters, laughter and tears of the 40 years I've been part of The Northern Echo.

But, for now, suffice to say thanks for the Priestgate Palace memories – and here's to the future.

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