ONE of the main aims of this weekly column is to highlight the achievements of the good folk of the North-East. So here’s a lookback at 2017 with my personal honours list of some of the amazing people I’ve met on my travels around the region...

ROUNI YOUSSEF: What a remarkable story Rouni had to tell when I met him in April. He’d fled to England from his home city of Aleppo, in war-torn Syria, where he was a newly-qualified doctor. He ended up in Middlesbrough and became one of the first cohort of 12 health care professionals given places on a pioneering programme, run by North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust and a Middlesbrough-based charity called Investing in People and Culture. The programme fast-tracks refugee doctors to fill recruitment gaps in the NHS and Rouni became the first to pass his examinations and become fully employed as a junior doctor, working at North Tees General Hospital.

BOB POTTS: At 72, retired engineer Bob could be forgiven for putting his feet up. Instead, he devotes 30 hours a week as a volunteer van driver, delivering meals-on-wheels to elderly, isolated and vulnerable people in the old pit villages of East Durham. Without the service provided by Wheatley Hill Community Association, many of the “customers” wouldn’t see another soul for days, let alone get a hot meal. I spent a morning with Bob on his round back in August. Unassuming and expecting no fanfare, he simply said: “I just do it because it’s something that’s very clearly needed – and that’s it.”

FRED WILLANS: Still in August, what an honour it was to meet 98-year-old Fred at his home in Darlington. The film, Dunkirk, was all the rage at the time and Fred told me his own epic story about escaping on the last boat home when Churchill sent an armada of small ships to rescue thousands of British troops trapped on the coast of France. “I was just lucky,” said Fred. “Really lucky.” Hollywood can never fully capture the horror of what men like Fred witnessed.

NORMAN MIDGLEY: Green-fingered Norman is also retired and is the driving force behind the transformation of the community garden outside Ceddesfield Hall in Sedgefield. I met him on my travels in October and discovered that he’s a shining example of a band of dedicated volunteers who devote an estimated 15,000 hours a year to making Sedgefield a better place to live. Where would we be without unsung community heroes like Norman, quietly working away in the background?

BILL BLEWITT: One of the happiest assignments of the year was writing about the joyful success of the Age UK North Yorkshire and Darlington Ukulele Band at the start of December. Launched as an ingenious way of combating loneliness, there are now more than 50 members, meeting for rehearsals every week and playing “gigs” for charity. At 97, Bill is the oldest member and personifies the story’s headline: “Happy go plucky.”

MATT HADDEN: Matt was an incredible young man, from Dalton-on-Tees, who inspired countless others with the way he faced terminal cancer by squeezing every last drop of life out of the time he had left. The highlight, amongst many achievements, was completing the Great North Run for charity, despite having had a leg amputated. Matt died, aged 28, on December 7, two days after I’d visited his bedside to film a message to be played at The Northern Echo’s Local Heroes Awards ceremony. Less than 24 hours after his death, he was rightly given a standing ovation.

LINDZ MASON: For devotion to his family and an infectious sense of fun, the last honour goes to Lindz, of Middleton St George. Every day between December 1 and Christmas, he dressed as an elf as part of a fund-raising campaign to help his disabled little boy. Emil, aged four, has cerebral palsy. He’s been in pain throughout his short life and needs a frame to help him walk. However, an operation, not available on the NHS, could change his life. The family’s target of £40,000 is now within reach.

Here’s wishing you elf, wealth and happiness in 2018.